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 crèches 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,