Thursday, 20 February 2014

Wild dogs and wildebeest

It had been a while since I last stood around a camp fire early in the morning in the Kalahari, nursing a coffee as I slowly woke up. The grasses were wet from the previous day’s rain and the early morning dew and clouds dotted the sky as the sun broke the horizon. We were looking for wild dogs and so we had camped 15km from the nearest road waiting for the location of a collared dog to be sent to us by a colleague remaining in Maun. As we waited Mmoloki saw some movement a few hundred metres away and calmly stated “wild dog”, as if they are a regular sighting and not what we had driven 8 hours to try and find. Sure enough the dogs had come to us but it was still early and the temperature was still cool so they weren’t going to hang around. Thoughts of breakfast were forgotten, tents were quickly collapsed and vehicles packed – the chase was on.

For nearly 5 years the wild dogs of the CKGR have been studied but locating packs of dogs has always been a challenge due to the sheer size of their home ranges. They think nothing of travelling 30-50km in a day across thick bush with a very limited road network, all in the search of sufficient prey. We had come to try and replace a couple of collars on one of the two current study packs, the Molapo pack. One collar was still sending a daily update of its location but we knew the batteries didn’t have too much life left in them and it was now or never. We would have to fly for the second pack, the Letiahau pack, to pick up a VHF signal in order to lead in a ground team.

I began to track for the dogs by VHF but was surprised to find that I was tracking the Letiahau pack. Could we have mixed up the frequencies at some point? I double checked our records and there was no mistake, we were on the trail of the Letiahau pack. Our original targets would have to wait as we also had collars to change in this pack!

Within 30 minutes we had caught up with the dogs but they were still on the move and not yet ready to settle down for the day. A duiker was flushed from one bush and sped off as fast as it could, there was only a half hearted chase from 2 or 3 dogs and it got away easily. We could see the dogs heading for a small clump of trees a kilometre or so away which would provide shade as the temperatures rose. Rob, our vet from Maun, started to prepare a dart and we moved our equipment around so that we were in a position to dart a dog if we could get close enough.

     
Wild dogs in the CKGR taking advantage of the available shade

As predicted, the dogs settled down to rest in the shade and we were able to approach slowly. Everything went like clockwork as our experience with darting animals allowed us to quickly get into position. The dart went exactly where it was supposed to and within 5 minutes the dog was sedated. The remaining pack members maintained a safe but curious distance as we first removed one collar and replaced it with a new satellite collar. This male dog was soon on his feet and with the pack, probably feeling a little confused but otherwise fine.

After allowing the dogs to relax and find some shade to rest under, we prepared to dart a second dog. We wanted to fit a second satellite collar so that if anything were to happen to the pack we would still be in a position to track them. This time the dogs picked a larger tree to rest under with no easy approach. So, without disturbing the dogs, we approached slowly from behind the tree and realised that the trunk split in two and we could see the dog we wanted to collar through the gap. The shot didn’t look like it was on but Rob trusted his aim and pulled off a remarkable shot to hit the dogs shoulder, missing the tree by millimetres. This female was soon sedated, allowing us to fit the collar quickly and get her back to the pack.
All this was completed before lunch. Not a bad morning’s work.
          

Fitting a collar to a wild dog female while the pack observe us from close quarters

So what did we have lined up for the afternoon? Well rather than rest on our laurels we still wanted to find the dog we originally went down to the CKGR for. All we had to go on was a 9am fix which was luckily only 5km away. However, we were 4 hours behind the dog and we still didn’t know if the VHF was working. When we reached the last location things initially didn’t look promising with no VHF signal so we feared the dogs were long gone. We had a look around the area on foot and just as we were thinking the dogs had not actually been here we found a track. The recent rains meant that animals were leaving quite distinctive tracks and this first sign was all we needed. Dabe began the hunt, much like a bloodhound, head down and focused. He moved quickly despite the thick bush, occasionally doubling back when the tracks faded or if the dogs had rested, going round some trees 2 or 3 times to make sure he was on the freshest track. When tracking in the bush you never know what is behind the next bush so you always try to have a vehicle close by. Dabe was so focused on the tracks and determined to catch up with the dogs that he practically walked right into them fast asleep. I’m not sure who was more shocked, Dabe or the dogs!

We were only mid way through the afternoon and we knew we had another 3 hours of daylight left to catch this dog and change the collar. There were only two dogs though and they didn’t really want us getting too close. With slightly thicker bush it meant it was difficult to get an angle for a shot and when we were lucky enough to get an angle the dogs swiftly moved. This went on for some time and resulted in couple of shots which just missed as the dog moved. Just as we were starting to lose hope the dogs moved into a slightly more open area and stayed still for just long enough. The dart only just hit the back leg but it was enough. The dog was sedated.

We waited 10 minutes before we approached to ensure that the dog wasn’t getting up. We stopped nearby and I grabbed a sheet to cover the dog’s eyes. As I placed the sheet down over the dog’s head he tried to get up. Clearly he hadn’t received a full dose and wasn’t completely sedated. So with me holding the dog down, making sure my hands were clear of sharp teeth and claws, Rob gave a small additional dose of tranquiliser to ensure he would stay asleep while we changed the collar. As the sun began to set we left the dogs to reflect on a good days work. We realised that this was a young male, approximately 3 years old, who had dispersed from his pack and was looking for a female to start a new pack. So what had happened to the original molapo pack? At this stage we don’t know but it is one of our main aims early in 2014 to locate this pack and replace the collars. We will keep you updated.
     

The wild dogs showed no ill effects from the darting as we caught up with them the following day

Despite achieving more in one day than we could ever have hoped for we were not finished. There was still one wildebeest collar to deploy but we would have to travel to the northern reaches of CKGR to meet Moses, the wildebeest researcher and find the right herd. Just getting there would take nearly a full day so we set up camp near the largest trees around and we were all asleep by 8pm!

A long but beautiful drive took us to Leopard Pan in the north of the CKGR where Moses was hoping to fit a new collar to the resident wildebeest herd. It never ceases to amaze me how a small amount of rain can radically change the complexion of the Kalahari. With the rains come new life but we were still a little early for the first springbok fawns. It was, however, fantastic to see the herbivores moving back to the pans to graze on the lush fresh grass.

After a night camping at Leopard Pan Moses joined Rob to hopefully identify and dart an adult female while we waited to assist by the edge of the pan. However, the females were just a little too shy and the big herd male was very protective of them so Rob was only able to dart the male. This was no problem as collaring the male would still allow for herd movement to be recorded and for the herd to be tracked to identify grazing resources. The collar was quickly fitted, additional measurements recorded and this impressive male was soon back protecting his herd.
          
This completed an incredibly successful trip and one where I remembered why I love being in the bush. The advancement in collar technology has meant it is possible for the location of collared animals to be transmitted via satellite and email so we are able to monitor animal movement remotely. This is a fantastic tool for a wildlife researcher but it is still very important to physically locate the animal in the field to monitor behaviour and resource use. This will continue throughout 2014 and we look forward to learning more about all of the species which KRC students and staff are working with.

 

The KRC team with Rob at the end of a successful trip


Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Summary of results

Following the conclusion of fieldwork there were lots of data to analyse which took some time. However, the analysis is now complete and a summary of the results is posted below. If anyone would like to receive a full pdf of the final thesis then please email me at zebra@zebramigration.org and I will happily send this to you. This thesis was submitted for a PhD at the University of Bristol and the PhD was awarded to me in May 2013.I am currently working on a few papers emanating from the research for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

I have recently returned to Botswana to work with the CKGR research team studying predator-prey interactions within the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Once things have settled down I will tell you a little bit more about the work that we are doing and what our current priorities are. If you have any questions or would like to contact me then please email me at zebra@zebramigration.org.

Thank you to everyone who helped out in anyway during the research, your help was greatly appreciated.

Dr James Bradley

Summary
This research was initiated as a follow-up study to the research of Dr Chris Brooks conducted between 2001 and 2005. The research examined the foraging behaviour, spatial distribution and adaptability to environmental changes of plains zebra (Equus quagga) in the Makgadikgadi, Botswana, following the construction of an electrified fence in 2004. Seasonal changes in resource availability were documented and GPS collars were used to record detailed movement data. The ongoing population dynamics of the zebra population were recorded throughout the study and the impact of the fence on the migratory zebra population was assessed where possible.

The results of this study show that zebra are highly adaptable and have the flexibility to respond to significant environmental changes, yet they need to continue to be able to move freely within the Makgadikgadi. Initial results suggest that the Makgadikgadi fence has had a positive impact on the zebra population but further monitoring is needed to assess the long-term impacts of fencing on the Makgadikgadi ecosystem and the resident wildlife. These findings add to those of Brooks (2005) and further our understanding of the resource requirements, spatial distribution and foraging behaviour of zebra in the Makgadikgadi.

During the research period, the Makgadikgadi was subject to significant environmental variability which influenced the spatial distribution and foraging behaviour of zebra. The Makgadikgadi experienced significant unseasonal rainfall in June 2009 which had a major effect on the location of the zebra herds within the Makgadikgadi. In addition, the Boteti River started to flow again in 2009 after a 20 year hiatus, significantly changing water availability for wildlife and livestock. Finally, a large bush fire in September 2010 removed nearly all of the available forage biomass, significantly influencing movement patterns and foraging behaviour. In addition to these one-off events, the Makgadikgadi experienced above average rainfall from 2008 to 2011 which led to increased forage growth across the Makgadikgadi when compared to the pre-fence study period.

Seasonal water availability determined the spatial distribution of zebra in the Makgadikgadi while forage quality and quantity was both spatially and temporally variable. The movement patterns of zebra reflected resource availability at multiple spatial scales and showed that zebra follow an area restricted search strategy. By adapting fine-scale foraging patterns to the quality and quantity of resources available, zebra were able to improve foraging efficiency. Zebra adopted an unselective foraging strategy at the feeding site, maximising intake rate and reducing the temporal and energetic costs of foraging during both a typical wet season and an atypical dry season. However, sites with increased forage dry matter were preferred in two of the three available habitats during the typical wet season. Pan grassland provided the highest quality forage with zebra taking advantage of fresh rains to move further into the pan grassland to forage. The mixed woodland and pan grassland habitats in CT/11 were used extensively throughout the wet season and were particularly important towards the end of the wet season as waterholes dry up.

When a large bush fire passed through the Makgadikgadi in early September 2010, environmental conditions changed overnight, yet zebra were able to adapt their behaviour to minimise the impact of the fire. They were required to extend their drinking interval, travel further and work harder to meet nutritional requirements. All of the collared zebra followed a similar post-fire strategy suggesting that zebra have learnt to be highly adaptive to the challenges faced within the semi-arid Makgadikgadi. Yet, despite the foraging restrictions caused by the fire, zebra were not required to push their physiological limits as much as was necessary during the long dry seasons of 2002 and 2003 (Brooks 2005). However, the impact of the fire may continue to be felt in the longer term as it may take 2-3 years for phytomass to return to pre-fire levels. It is also unknown how the increased demands placed on zebra after the fire will have affected survival rates of both adults and foals.

Continuous GPS data collected from collars fitted to zebra made it possible to determine how environmental characteristics influence the foraging behaviour of a large herbivore. First-passage time analysis (FPT) of recorded GPS data made it possible to identify discrete movement paths and identify foraging patches. This analysis showed how the foraging behaviour of zebra within feeding patches reflected seasonal differences in resource availability and quality.

Comparison between pre-fence study and current study
During the pre-fence study, zebra were recorded pushing their physiological limits; drinking on average every four days and foraging up to 35km from the Boteti riverbed (Brooks 2005). It was hypothesised that the construction of the Makgadikgadi fence and removal of livestock from the MPNP would influence zebra movement and foraging behaviour.

The current study found that zebra decreased their drinking interval to every 2-3 days but with occasional longer intervals of 4-5 days. However, while zebra foraged within 5km of the riverbed, something they did not do prior to the fence being constructed, they continued to select forage areas that were 15-20km from the Boteti River.

Before the fence was built, zebra were reliant on natural water seeps and two pumped waterholes in the riverbed for drinking water. However, these waterholes were also used by livestock and so competition for water was high. Following the erection of the fence and the consequent exclusion of farmers and livestock, zebra freely enter the riverbed throughout the day, even stopping to rest in the riverbed; something that did not happen pre-fence. The return of the Boteti River has provided abundant fresh water, resulting in zebra spending less than 0.5% of their time within 100m of the riverbed compared with nearly 5% of their time during the pre-fence study (Brooks 2005). Furthermore, while zebra are still vulnerable to predation around the riverbed, surplus killing is no longer evident. However, the observed changes cannot be attributed solely to the fence as forage and water availability were significantly different between the pre- and post-fence studies.

Ground surveys were conducted during both the pre-fence study and the current study to record the population dynamics of zebra in the Makgadikgadi. These surveys focused on the recruitment of yearling zebra (1-2 years old) to the population as an indicator of population health. In 2003, there was a yearling recruitment rate of 16±3 (SD) yearlings per hundred adult females, while the current study recorded 23±4 yearlings. The yearling recruitment in the stable zebra population in Kruger National Park, South Africa was 17 yearlings per hundred adult females, suggesting that the Makgadikgadi population is currently in a healthy state and may even be growing. However, further monitoring is required to determine whether this high recruitment rate is maintained.

The Makgadikgadi fence was designed to be a physical barrier to separate wildlife and livestock yet, in its current state, it is highly permeable. Over time, multiple crossing points through the fence have been established by elephants which have allowed unrestricted access to the Boteti River. These crossing points have subsequently allowed cattle and donkeys to enter the MPNP once more. The fence appears to have had a positive effect on the behaviour of zebra however. Restricting livestock access and the resulting removal of inter-specific competition for grazing resources may even be contributing to improved yearling recruitment. With this in mind, it is to be hoped that the fence can be modified and rebuilt in accordance with the Makgadikgadi Management Plan recommendations.

References
Brooks, C.J. (2005) The foraging behaviour of Burchell's zebra (Equus burchelli antiquorum). PhD Thesis, University of Bristol.

Friday, 10 June 2011

End of fieldwork

They say that every good thing must come to an end. With the removal of the final GPS collar on 4th April, almost 2 years to the day since the first GPS collar was deployed, the current fieldwork phase for the project ended. It was sad to say goodbye to the zebra that I have been following closely for the last two years but a relief that we were successfully able to remove all of the collars.

At the beginning of March the Makgadikgadi was incredibly dry, mosquitoes were non-existent (a very pleasant bonus) and waterholes were drying up. I began to wonder whether the zebra would have migrated prior to darting, really messing with my plans. I need not have worried though as the few small showers that taunted us were followed by a couple of bigger storms that passed through the park towards the end of March. The rain encouraged zebra out of the woodlands and back onto the pans and I swear you could even see the zebra smiling as the rain began to fall.

However, by the time we began the darting, the zebra had moved away from the edge of the pans to the centre of the park, an area that they hadn’t visited since November. This is the traditional end of wet season area and from here many of the zebra will make the short journey back to the Boteti. Others will head east and gamble on there still being some water remaining in the surface waterholes before they too return to the Boteti.

Thanks to the experience and skill of the vet, a little luck and sheer determination we were able to remove 10 collars in 5 days, a feat which didn’t seem possible after the first day when we were only able to find one collared zebra. We were also able to weigh all of the zebra with the heaviest zebra tipping the scales at 435kg! This zebra has a 5 month old foal at foot meaning that her weight is all muscle and fat reserves and, at more than 100kg heavier than what most books suggest is the average weight of a plains zebra, provides plenty of food for thought.

My trusty Landrover also knew that the end was nigh and with the arrival of more rattles and creaks it was telling me that it needed some time away from the harsh Makgadikgadi and the numerous aardvark holes.

I am now looking forward to the next phase of the project which involves the detailed analysis of all of the data collected so far. To do this I will return to Bristol to immerse myself in a world of papers, books and statistics to help understand what is happening within the Makgadikgadi. This is perhaps the most exciting phase of the project but one which will require a different set of skills to that needed for fieldwork.

Due to the current location of zebra within the Makgadikgadi, and the likelihood that they will soon return to the Boteti, I have decided to delay the planned Aerial survey until January 2012. This is to ensure that the survey will be conducted at the best possible time and in the best possible conditions. I don’t want to rush the survey now and have an estimate of the population size that is not reliable. If anyone would be willing to support this survey then all contributions would be gratefully received.

I would like to thank everybody who has contributed in any way towards the success of the fieldwork phase of the project. This support is greatly appreciated and has helped make the last two years so successful and enjoyable despite the numerous challenges.

As the write-up progresses I will keep you updated with new findings and interesting results. If you have any comments or queries about anything regarding the Makgadikgadi Zebra Research then please get in touch.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Smithsonian

It has been a relatively quiet month in the Makgadikgadi. Very little rain fell and so the ground has hardened up considerably making it easier to travel around as the zebra move off the pans and into the woodland areas and the grasslands closer to large waterholes. Rains in late February have encouraged zebra to move back down onto the pans while the water remains fresh. It will be interesting to see whether we continue to get late rains this year like we have for the past few years.


Fieldwork has continued throughout the month taking its toll on the research vehicle which is now visiting the car doctor for some expert love and attention. The research vehicle will be back with me soon as I conduct the last month of field data collection for this phase of the project. Then, at the end of March and into early April, all remaining collars will be removed from zebra with the assistance of a qualified veterinarian.

There have been no unexpected sightings to report this month, I keep hearing Lions calling through the night but they remain elusive when day breaks. I have been conducting observations this month and it is fascinating to watch the dynamics within the zebra herds as bachelors look to start a harem while harem stallions fend off the attention of other males.

I am continuing to plan the aerial survey which I hope to undertake either later this month or in early April. I would like to thank SAVE Foundation and Kalahari Kavango for their pledged support for this survey in offering to meet some of the costs. Additional funding is still required and if anyone feels that they might be able to support the project and help to meet the costs of this survey then please let me know. I am also still looking to secure funding for the chemical analysis of grass and faeces samples collected during fieldwork. Any support for either of these targets would be greatly appreciated.

The Makgadikgadi Zebra Research project is featured in the latest issue of The Smithsonian Magazine which chose to make it the cover story. The story was written by Robyn Keene-Young who visited the project in November 2010 in order to learn more about the research, its aims and the challenges faced while working in the Makgadikgadi. Robyn provides a very good view of the research and the feedback that I have had so far has been very promising and I am glad that so many people are interested in the research. You can read the story at the following link: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/issue/March_2011.html. There is also a video of zebras and the research on the website which you might be interested in watching.

I hope that this finds you all well and if you have anything which you would like to comment on then please feel free to get in touch.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

A New Year

As with much of Southern Africa, and seemingly many other places in the world, Botswana is currently receiving some fairly heavy rainfall. Maun is getting rain nearly every day while the level of the floodwaters coming into the delta from Angola, as a result of rainfall there, is currently higher than previous records for this time of year. The Makgadikgadi is also receiving some good rains but these are often very localised heavy showers with only the occasional storm affecting the whole park. This means that the pans are getting progressively wetter and muddier making conditions a little tricky in places. So far I have avoided getting stuck but there have been times when it’s been touch and go!

Throughout January the zebra have been grazing on the grass islands along the edge of the pans. With the presence of fresh rainwater in the pans and waterholes these grass islands, where the grasses there have grown significantly in the last month, become easily accessible and the zebras are making the most of it.

Newborn zebra foals and wildebeest calves are thriving and it is interesting to observe the differences in their behaviour. Wildebeest calves of a similar age join together in large cr├Ęches and run around while their mothers graze. Foals on the other hand largely stay with their mothers within the family harem, only playing with other foals if they are from the same harem.

We have had a busy month of fieldwork with behavioural and grazing observations conducted, population counts done and water, faeces and grass sampled. With all of the zebra on the pans it makes them slightly easier to find with less time spent travelling between areas searching for the herds.

When water sampling we spotted a lone cheetah sitting on a ridge a few hundred metres away. We approached slowly as cheetah in the Makgadikgadi are often very nervous but unusually this one was incredibly relaxed and not fazed by the car at all. After taking a couple of photos we moved to carry on with the sampling when I realised that 15 zebra were about to walk straight past where the cheetah had laid down and so I moved back to a ridge a hundred metres or so away to watch what would happen. Through my binoculars I watched the cheetah scan along the line of zebra and settle on the smallest foal. When the foal was at its closest point the cheetah took off and rapidly caught up with the foal bringing it down. Within seconds of the cheetah getting the foal, the foal’s mother and father were on the scene defending the foal and trying to chase the cheetah away. At the second attempt they succeeded and the cheetah retreated to a nearby bush but the foal stayed down. Around a minute passed before the foal sprang back to its feet and trotted rapidly off in the opposite direction to rejoin the harem having only a slight scratch on its rump but a more serious cut on its face to show for its close brush with death.

It all happened so quickly that it is difficult to piece together the images of the event in my mind. I was torn between wanting the foal to survive the attack but also wanting the cheetah to complete its hunt successfully as predator hunts often fail with only around 1 in 4 hunts successful. It was, however, fascinating to watch the zebra come in to defend their foal without hesitation and I have no doubt that the cheetah, a big and healthy male, will be more successful in the future.

I am now into the last few months of fieldwork for the project and I am looking to complete the last few pieces of the jigsaw. As well as taking the remaining GPS collars off in early April, I am hoping to conduct an aerial population count of zebra within the Makgadikgadi. I have tried to plan this in the past but have had to postpone it due to a lack of funding. I am planning this now and, as with anything that involves flying, it is likely to cost a significant amount of money – around £1,000.

To understand more about the movement of zebra within the Makgadikgadi and the reasons behind this movement, I have been collecting grass and faeces samples for analysis. The influence of dietary protein and minerals is going to be very important in understanding more about the zebras’ movement and long-term requirements. These samples are sorted initially at the Okavango Research Institute in Maun but to be analysed in more detail it is likely that I will have to send them to South Africa. To get these samples analysed I will have to pay between £5 and £10 per sample depending on the analysis required and due to the number of samples I am expecting to have to pay £2,500 to £3,000 for this analysis.

If you feel that you would able to contribute towards meeting the costs of the aerial survey or the sample analysis then I would be very happy to hear from you and any assistance would be greatly appreciated. I should also remind you that all donations are tax deductible.

Best wishes to you all,

James

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Happy New Year

2011 has arrived leaving me wondering what happened to 2010 which just seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye. Maybe the Mayan prophecy for 2012 is correct after all!

December began with zebra spread out across the Makgadikgadi with some still drinking from the Boteti River and grazing nearby whilst others were grazing on the eastern boundary of the National Park. Rains had been quite light and sporadic with only a few of the surface waterholes containing water. This meant that many of the zebra chose to remain near to the Boteti River until there had been further heavy rainfall to ensure that there would be drinking water available to them before they headed east. Other zebra decided to take a risk and moved east in the knowledge that there should be some water available to them but they would have to search for it.

Unfortunately, one of the collared zebra which had remained near to the Boteti River had a very close encounter with the resident lions. They are two of the biggest female lions people have ever seen with both weighing over 200kgs and so it is no surprise that the collared zebra didn’t survive the encounter.

As December wore on everything began to dry out even more until a couple of big storms passed through just before Christmas. One storm caught me whilst we were grass sampling and instantly flooded the roads causing us to seek shelter and wait for the storm to pass – we were sat there for 3 hours! As always, the sun eventually reappeared and quickly began to dry everything out once more allowing us to carry on with our work.

With the recent storms it appears that the zebra herds have finally migrated east with large numbers being seen around Jacks Camp. I hope that this means that the wet season has now arrived in earnest which brings its own challenges. I’m sure it won’t be long before the mosquitoes are everywhere and I will have to be very careful not to get stuck in the wet mud of the pans!

With the arrival of the rains comes new life. In the last update I mentioned how one of the collared zebra had recently given birth, I can now add that a further collared zebra gave birth around the 10th December. There are more foals being born all of the time and it is quite incredible to see so many young foals within the herds.

I have recently posted some photos from the Makgadikgadi in 2010 to my website and if you click on the following link you can view these images - http://www.zebramigration.org/gallery/

I would like to thank you all for your support for the research during 2010 and I hope that this continues through 2011. I hope that you all have a very happy and prosperous 2011.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Pula!

After months with barely a cloud in the sky the first rains have arrived turning Botswana green once again. It is incredible to see the influence of rain and how even bare soil rapidly turns into a lush carpet of grass and herbs. Beetles, moths, butterflies, millipedes, frogs and scorpions have all returned en masse with the frogs feeding particularly well on flying termites.

Within the Makgadikgadi there was sufficient rain to encourage the zebra to migrate east to access the lush growth which has emerged following the fire with the grasslands looking like they have been especially cultivated to grow grass in order to feed the thousands of hungry mouths. However, the rains received so far have not been enough to really fill the waterholes and so they are now nearly all dry again until the next good rainfall. This has meant that the zebra have had to move from the grasslands back to the Boteti or head north west where there has so far been more rainfall. Botswana has been predicted to receive above average rainfall this year and so the zebras, as well as the researchers, will just have to patient!

Since the first rains the Makgadikgadi has begun to look like a large nursery with offspring of zebra, gemsbok, impala and springbok being born as each species maximises the positive effect of the rain. A collared zebra has been one of the many zebra to give birth so far and both foal and mother looked in very good condition when they were observed last week. Being born at the start of the wet season gives the foal a great chance to successfully negotiate the difficult first year of its life. I have named the foal ‘Pula’ which means ‘rain’ in Setswana. Rains are so important to life in Botswana that ‘Pula’ also means money and through the research I have certainly come to realise the importance of both!

Throughout the dry season zebra are reliant on the Boteti River as the only place where they can access drinking water. However, due to the need to find grazing of both sufficient quantity as well as quality, it was necessary for zebra to regularly be travelling 20-25 km away from the river and only drinking once every 3-4 days. By only drinking infrequently zebra are able to maximise the length of time which they spend in the grazing area. However, one collared zebra avoided this journey entirely by remaining on the western side of the river near to Leroo La Tau in an area 5km x 2km in size between the river and the fence for four months! She crossed the river into this area on June 20th and only crossed back again after the first rains in November.

Nearly 3 months have passed since the bush fire spread through the Makgadikgadi in early September. It was horrific to see the impact of the fire with such a large area comprehensively burnt but the ability of nature to respond to such extreme events is always amazing to see. Many of the burnt areas are now thick with fresh grass and the contrast between burnt and un-burnt areas is very noticeable with herbivores favouring the burnt areas. The long-term repercussions of the fire are still to be seen but may ultimately prove to be positive as the fire removed the old grass which forms dense, unpalatable tufts and allowed for new grass tufts to begin again with fresh growth which is more easily grazed by all herbivores.

I will continue to monitor the weather with interest as we wait for the rains to being in earnest. As ever if you have any questions or comments then please feel free to contact me. I look forward to hearing from you.