Elephants, fences, and the “Wild Bush” (and a snapshot of the Indian Ocean)

I’m finally back in Singapore after 11 months, having spent the last month in South Africa on a biodiversity research expedition with Operation Wallacea. With 10 other university students from the UK, USA and Canada, we spent 3 weeks at Struwig Eco Reserve in Balule Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger Park, and a further 1 week at Exodus campsite/Sodwana Bay Lodge in Sodwana Bay, part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

In short, it’s been an awesome expedition, having learnt a lot more about savannah/bush ecology and the animals that inhabit the biome, and especially what conservation means in South Africa.

Black-backed jackal

Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)

Africa is well known for its Big 5, the 5 most dangerous animals to hunt – the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), the leopard (Panthera pardus) and last but not least, the African Lion (Panthera leo). Most of us think of Africa as a land of the Wild, where animals roam free and there’s a risk of dying out there (or perhaps having near death experiences). With increasing development, as in many other countries, animals are being pushed out of their native lands into reserves for their protection (or ours). Fenced up reserves, enclosing the animals are the norm in South Africa. However, this poses conservation issues as well.

My first wild rhino sighting! And only decent photo.

My first wild rhino sighting! A white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), we subsequently saw at least 2 for the next 3 days 😀 This was the only decent photo though.

During the 3 weeks in Balule, we attended lectures and conducted habitat assessments, bird point counts and set invertebrate pit lines.

Conducting a habitat assessment - having to navigate through thorn trees is not fun.

Conducting a habitat assessment – having to navigate through thorn trees is not fun.

Elephants were the focus of the research at Balule, and there was supposedly an overpopulation of them in the reserve. Elephants are highly destructive, tearing down young trees and preventing the regeneration of trees. With an over-population, the habitat could change from a bushveld into a grassveld, hence the need to constantly manage the populations. We didn’t see any elephants for the first two weeks we were there, but in our last week we saw many herds of them. During our habitat assessments, we would assess the impact made to trees in a quadrat by elephants and other browsers, as well as level of grazing by the grazers.

This little elephant was not pleased at seeing us.

This little elephant was not pleased at seeing us, flapping its ears and bellowing at us.

We also conducted bird point counts to assess bird biodiversity. We had to learn how to identify birds not just by visuals but by their calls as well, but I’m afraid I never really got the hang of more than 5/10 bird calls. Our field guides are amazing though, able to hear calls no one else picked up and identify them.

Lilac-breasted roller. We also conducted bird point counts.

Lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus). Spotted on the way to one of our bird point counts.

Pit traps were set up as well to survey the ground invertebrate diversity, most of which were ants and spiders. We had a snake and lizard in some of our pit traps though, which was quite cool 🙂

Praying mantis in one of our insect traps.

Praying mantis in one of our insect traps.

Anyway, back to elephants, they usually migrate naturally in search of fresh food sources. Fenced up, they’re blocked off from their usual migratory routes (though most fences are not elephant proof), and end up over-browsing in the enclosed area they’re stuck in.

With so much management needed, can these animals be truly considered wild, or just a more glam version of a zoo? A number of other management techniques we discussed was controlled burns, artificial waterholes and culling.

Sunset - those electricity cables run right through the reserve though.

Sunset – those electricity cables run right through the reserve though. As well as a train track.

We also discussed the issue of trophy hunting – should it be allowed? Considering the massive contribution of trophy hunting to conservation funding (50% of the cost goes to conservation), and the relatively small impact (as compared to hoards of people coming in for eco-tourism), it seems to be a lesser evil. And if we don’t hunt them, we may ultimately still have to cull them to control the population. Yet the idea of shooting animals just for the fun of it (or for its horns/tusks/whatever it is that catches these people’s fancy) seems inhumane.

Spotted hyena

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) on one of our night drives

With so much management involved, is there any true wilderness left?

For every habitat, if we are going to choose to develop certain areas and conserve others, then we’re almost certainly going to have to manage it because it’s been “disturbed” and no longer natural.

Going out on a bush walk

Going out on a bush walk. The one thing we should NEVER do when out in the bush, is to run. Cos only food runs.

Often times, in order to preserve the same level of biodiversity, there needs to be intervention measures. Yet is this what we want for the future, to have wildlife surviving solely because we’re managing it?

African civet tracks - never saw one personally though :(

African civet tracks – never saw one personally though 😦

To have fenced in reserves, rangers protecting, and managers managing, there’s bound to be lots of problems. Maybe it would be better to have fenced in towns for people instead, and allow wildlife to roam. But we all know that’s not gonna happen.

Those clouds were a little anomalous for the time of the year. We even had a thunderstorm.

Those clouds were a little anomalous for the time of the year. We even had a thunderstorm.

It was pretty depressing, talking about all this. Ultimately, habitats are changing/have been changed to the extent they can no longer support the diversity they used to. We can try and manipulate to maintain that diversity artificially, but it won’t survive for long, and it won’t survive without us. And even if we do conserve their habitat and the ecosystem, there’s still climate change to screw everything over, change the ranges and cause even more extinctions. I guess it boils back down to why am I even bothering with conservation.

Is it just cos I don’t want to say, I’m the one who caused the extinctions? Don’t want to pass on a biologically impoverished world to future generations?

Fortunate to be able to enjoy a sunrise with an elephant on the bank

Fortunate to be able to enjoy a sunrise with an elephant on the bank

Biophilia perhaps, innate in everyone, just needs to be stirred. And hope, hope that one day the world will come together to realise that we all need to protect what we have in order to survive (read my friend David Tan’s essay on why we should conserve). We need to reduce or slow down urbanisation, cut down on consumption, live more environmentally lives and do what we can.

If you had a whole new world, what would you do? A game I played a bit of when I was younger, called Dino Island, got it completely wrong. You don’t start with a bare land, devoid of anything, and then start constructing roads and buildings. You start with a rich habitat for wildlife, part of an ecosystem, part of a ecoregion, part of a biome, part of the biosphere. And then you bulldoze it, raze it to the ground, to get that “bare land”.

Lots of depressing issues surround conservation. But still, there is always hope, like this Peace Parks Foundation.  And I think as long as there is always a younger generation that’s engaged and actively trying to make a difference, there is still the hope that when our species eventually does leave the earth, it won’t leave behind an entirely impoverished one.

Anyway, back to my last week in South Africa. The week spent diving in Sodwana was awesome, I had really missed diving. The reefs were awesome, the area has been protected for almost 2 decades, and not just the reefs but the mangroves too.

Schools of snappers

Schools of snappers

I didn’t get to see manta rays or whale sharks, though people on the other dives have :/ No sharks either, but I did see a pod of bottlenose dolphins, a humpback whale nursing her young, and a really huge nudibranch!

A pod of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.)

A pod of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.)

We also attended some talks on pretty interesting research done by the local park authorities, Wildlife & Ecological Investments (Operation Wallacea’s partner organisation in South Africa) and the Oceanographic Research Institute. ORI is starting a project tagging fish (Green jobfish and Potato cod) to see if they migrate between patch reefs (some of which are No Take Zones, and some are Multiple Uses Zones) to help monitor fish populations and if fishing/diving has any negative impact.

Biggest nudibranch I ever saw - Djibouti Giant! A5 slate for comparison

Biggest nudibranch I ever saw –  a Djibouti Giant! A5 slate for comparison

The Djibouti Giant

The Djibouti Giant (I can’t seem to find the scientific name for it, and I know my white balance is off :/)

We also discussed global marine conservation issues, such as shark-finning (watched Shark Water) and over-fishing, but in South Africa, thanks to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, marine conservation isn’t in that bad a shape. Problems arise when sharks which are protected in South African waters (if I recall right) swim over to Mozambique where they get finned :/ I think the one of the best long-term solution is with Education and Awareness to reduce demand.

Christmas tree worms like an underground garden

Christmas tree worms are like an underwater garden (:

Much as I love both terrestrial and marine biology and ecology, I think my first and primary interest will always be with in the oceans (:

Sunrise on the beach

Sunrise on the beach

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About Jocelyne Sze

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
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