Welgevonden Game Reserve is pioneering in its conservation approach.
Some of the projects that are most current and interesting;
Elephant management has and will always be an emotive subject. The newly published National Norms and Standard for elephant management highlights just this. On Welgevonden this is no different and we have adopted an active elephant management program over the last few years.
The objectives of elephant management on Welgevonden are to
- Maintain a demographically viable population
- Maintain a functioning ecosystem
- Control the number & growth rate of elephant
- Contribute to an understanding of biology and management of elephants
- Contribute to the conservation of elephants
Elephant populations are known to double every ten years, and this obviously represents a considerable risk for biodiversity conservation as a result of the cumulative impact on vegetation composition and structure over time. In order to achieve the objectives of the elephant management plan, Welgevonden is continuously exploring possibilities for translocation and elephant have been translocated to the Eastern Cape in the past.
Unfortunately, possibilities for translocation are limited, and to slow down the population growth rate an immunocontraception program was initiated in 2005 to reduce the birth rate. The contraceptive vaccine (porcine zona pellucida, or pZP) works by blocking the sperm receptor sites on the ovulated eggs, thus forming a physical barrier between the sperm and egg. Hence, the vaccine is not only highly effective but is also safe and reversible when annual re-vaccinations are stopped.
Application does not require the cows to be immobilised as the vaccination is simply applied using drop-out darts delivered from a helicopter. The vaccination protocol entails a primary vaccination followed by two boosters at 3-4 week intervals during the first year and a single annual booster thereafter. Taking existing pregnancies into account (which are not affected by the vaccine), stabilisation of the population occurs after approximately three years. The population on Welgevonden stabilized by September 2007 but since then some cows have been deliberately “skipped” during the contraception to allow a limited births within the herds. After all what is an elephant herd without calves which are an integral part of elephant society!
Welgevonden Game Reserve’s pioneering anti-poaching initiatives
This is by far one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted in conservation
Plains and Game:
The plains project was established to turn nutrient poor vegetation with low nutritional value grasses such as thatching grass, which is not good for animal fecundity, into grasses such as couch grass which has a higher nutritional value. The animals would thus feed of the nutritional grasses which would allow them to have a better body condition and be able to have better milk quality and production to feed their offspring. Thus the overall fecundity of the animals would improve which would be better for tourism and general game species survival. The idea behind the game introduction programme was twofold, firstly to help get the general animals species out of the predator pit, i.e. by having enough general animals that they could breed more than be preyed upon to ensure long-tern sustainability.
The second was that the more animals you had, the more they would eat, thus converting more areas into higher nutritional value grass areas resulting in better fecundity. The more animals you have depositing faeces and urine on the plains, would be returning more micro-nutrients back into the system.
This system is now being implemented in South East Asia to assist in saving Tigers!
From thesis by
Chief Executive Officer
WELGEVONDEN GAME RESERVE
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The primary reason for the study is to stimulate better survival rates of ungulate species within a nutritionally poor game reserve. This is based on the observation that on an annual basis the wild ungulate species numbers are falling; this is caused by the combination of low birth rates, low survival rates of juvenile animals, and high natural death rates (including those which are caused by predation). This reduction in numbers can be offset by ungulate purchases. The outlined causes for the deterioration of the ungulate numbers are all linked to the fact that the so-named “Sourveld” is an ecosystem in which nutrient limitation is a well-known fact.
A total of 58 large mammal and five smaller mammal species has been recorded in the study area. In order to achieve the objectives of the reserve, the manipulation of both predator and ungulates (prey species) will be required to ensure long-term sustainability as a “Big 5” game reserve. This will include the stabilising of the predator numbers and ensuring the growth of the ungulate numbers to increase pressure on the vegetation (which is needed to suppress fires) and to supply food for predators.
Due to the acidic nature of the soil in Welgevonden, the predominating vegetation in this area is tall grass with low nutritional value that can only support small numbers of herbivores. Studies undertaken by Wildlife and Ecological Investments, a volunteer and research organisation which was based on Welgevonden from 2009 to 2015, included the monitoring of herbivores to assess their survival rates. One of the key management information requirements for Welgevonden is data on the ranging, habitat use and population dynamics (births, survival rates and herd structures) of zebra and antelope (kudu, wildebeest, hartebeest, eland and impala) because these species are the preferred prey of lions.
A further objective for the study based on the terrain and vegetation types, is to show that land considered ecologically unsuitable for agriculture or any other land use, which has minimal capability to stimulate economic value for the region and the associated people, can be utilised for conservation and tourism. It is hypothesised that this is achievable through sustainable utilisation, creating employment which results in social and economic upliftment for the entire region. Conservation is an extremely important but expensive undertaking and in 1999, estimates stated that the earth’s ecological systems were worth approximately US$ 33 trillion annually. It has taken 60 years for wildlife to emerge as an important and economically viable land use option and is now a proven economic model in certain areas.
This in the context of Welgevonden shows that in order for the reserve to be the best managed “Big 5” game reserve and tourist destination in the world, the reserve must provide above standard game viewing opportunities of the “Big 5”. As well as a diversity of ungulates which are enjoyed by tourists from a viewing perspective and imperative to the survival of the predator populations. To ensure the long-term sustainable utilisation of the area as a “Big 5” game reserve, as a tourist destination, for the survival of the predators on the reserve and to ensure viable populations of the ungulates, it is paramount that the ungulate species be protected and their food be manipulated.
There is a concern in the conservation arena that management of game reserves should not artificially change and/or manipulate animals and vegetation within a reserve. It is important to remember, that once one has erected a fence around an area, one has already created an unnatural environment. Thus, the question remains what is the best possible management of the fenced area to create conditions for viable populations of both animals and vegetation. This results in management of the area being required to undertake certain activities to ensure the best possible survival of all animals and vegetation. This will include but not be limited to the manipulation and interventions of the old agricultural lands and plains areas which have historically been used for farming of one or another form and thus depleted the area of many of the nutrients required for healthy vegetation. The manipulations and interventions will stimulate more palatable and nutritional grazing, coupled with feed supplements for ungulate species to ensure the correct nutrient trace elements are ingested. This will ensure the best possible utilisation of the poor quality vegetation and the highest possible birth and survival rates of the ungulate offspring.
The main challenge faced by Welgevonden is to establish ways to attain and maintain high numbers and diversity of ungulates species in a very nutrient poor system, and being able to remain out of the “predator pit”. Predators can cause the “predator pit” in the recruitment curve of ungulates, until the ungulate densities decline to a very low value. This continues until the remaining ungulates have some form of refuge area or until prey switching occurs. The predator pit can be described as the number of ungulates dropping due to high predation and low birth and/or survival rates of the ungulates which results in the annual procurement of ungulates species. For a reserve such as Welgevonden, this results in high costs associated to the owners of the reserve. The current adult predator population numbers on Welgevonden are 12 lions, 19 cheetahs and 24 leopards, which requires an estimated 84,800 kilograms of food per year, at current prices this equates to R 2, 3 million per annum in game purchases (Prins, 2014).
The overall objective is to show that land which is deemed unproductive for agriculture or any other land use form can be utilised for conservation and eco-tourism and provide an economically stable area from an ecological, economic and social perspective for the benefit of the entire region.