Cape Town - It’s a long way from the oak-shaded streets of Stellenbosch to the wooded expanses of the southern section of Africa’s Great Rift Valley in Malawi.
But when Jessica Wienand was capped with an MSc during a graduation ceremony at Stellenbosch University , her degree symbolised a recently established bond between these two seemingly disparate areas that is set to strengthen further in the next few years as fellow post-grads from the venerable Matie academic institution follow in her footsteps.
Wienand and her colleagues are conservation ecology post-graduate students at the university’s Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, where they are working under the guidance of Dr Alison J Leslie, and their research is helping revive the important Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi.
This 70 000-hectare reserve was proclaimed in 1955. Lying in the Lower Shire Valley at the southernmost tip of the Great Rift Valley, it is one of the larger protected areas in Malawi.
But it was devastated by poaching in the 1980s and 90s, to the extent that by the turn of the millennium, most of its animals had been eliminated or reduced to very low numbers.
Things changed significantly for the better in 2003 when the private, not-for-gain African Parks group assumed responsibility for managing the reserve through a public-private partnership initiative with the Malawian government.
African Parks is described as “a non-profit organisation that takes total responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks in partnership with governments and local communities”.
The organisation started work rehabilitating, developing and managing Majete, fencing the reserve so that it could contribute to tourism initiatives from which the local community could benefit.
It translocated some 2 550 animals of 14 different species into the conservation area, including lion, leopard, elephant – 217 of these giants – buffalo, black rhino, sable antelope and eland and many other antelope species.
Now a decade later, the project is moving from its inception and rehabilitation phase into a conservation, monitoring and habitat management phase, and this is where Leslie and her research students are involved.
For her thesis, Wienand, from Zambia, studied the impact of the reintroduced elephants on the reserve over the past 10 years, and she looked particularly at their impact on the area’s woody vegetation and how to best manage the perennial and artificial water sources on the reserve.
It was during a visit to the reserve about two-and-a-half years ago to see how Wienand was progressing that Leslie, an ecologist and crocodile specialist, came up with an idea of a formal Majete Wildlife Research Programme.
“I went to see her and – bingo! – it all happened,” she told the Cape Argus.
The programme was formally established in April by means of a memorandum of understanding signed between African Parks Majete, Leslie’s department, and the Lilongwe University of Natural Resource Management in Malawi.
The students will be involved in this research programme to help assess, monitor and model the population dynamics of many of the re-introduced species, including buffalo and black rhinoceros and a locally discovered hyena population.
Because Majete is a confined system, management decisions can have a direct impact on population densities and the distribution of some species of large mammals.
A predator monitoring programme will also be implemented to assess the impact and adaptation of the re-introduced lions and leopards.
This research work will ultimately help develop suitable management strategies to handle fire, establish appropriate artificial water provision, and manage conflicts which might arise between humans and wildlife, Leslie explains.
“Changes in animal numbers and the impact that re-introduced species such as elephant, buffalo and rhino have on the vegetation need to be determined and monitored.
“Base-line monitoring provides essential feedback to reserve staff about the impact of current and future management actions, and how these can be adapted to maximise effectiveness.”
A self-sufficient research centre and camp was constructed earlier this year and serves as a base from where Stellenbosch University students Kate Spies, working towards a Master’s degree, and PhD student Collin Tucker have been studying impala, waterbuck and buffalo.
Species counts are done on foot and by vehicle, while the more than 30 digital camera traps set around the reserve and aerial surveys also help to complete population censuses.
Two more post-grad students will be heading to Malawi early next year.
Master’s students spend 18 months in the reserve and doctoral students a full two years. They are assisted in their field work and helped financially by volunteers from the the Earthwatch Institute, an international environmental organisation.
Majete park manager Patricio Ndadzela says this multi-disciplinary research programme, together with a dedicated research centre, is a first for Malawi.
“We’re excited about the involvement of the universities, as this will strengthen our conservation work and provide essential scientific backing and information to our conservation efforts.” - Cape Argus