One of the best ways to gain insight as to how wild animals live is to simply watch them. Camera traps offer a fascinating means into the world of wild animals, and provide helpful data and information to those working in the field doing their utmost to protect them.
A camera trap survey was conducted on Thanda Safari and Mduna Royal Reserve at the heart of the Elephant Coast in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal between May and August 2016.
The primary aim of the camera trap survey was to determine an approximate population density of hyena on the two reserves. However, the data will provide many other insights into the occurrence and densities of various other species too. For a long time, there has been a need for a fair estimate of hyena densities on Thanda and Mduna. As apex predators, they form a very important component of our predator guild. A good way to achieve this is through a well-designed camera trap survey.
Sasol supplied 33 camera traps for a period of 4 months, making the survey possible. Forty boxes were purpose built to protect the cameras from curious wildlife, especially hyena, elephant and rhino. Under the guidance of Dr. Lourens Swanepoel from the University of Venda and Kevin Emslie, an Ecologist with the Wildlife Resource Association (WRA) who manages the rodent and serval work on Sasol’s plant in Secunda, the survey was set up in May 2016.
Thanda Safari was overlaid with a grid using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software and using aerial imagery, ideal camera trap sites were identified in each of the resulting 1.5km2 grid squares. The camera stations were placed as close to road intersections and drainage lines as possible as these are often used as animal “highways”. The cameras stayed for 50 days on each side of the reserve.
Each proposed station was inspected and assessed before being prepared. The camera was then fixed to a tree or to a metal stake hammered into the ground at a height of 40 cm, in the ideal position to maximise the chances of capturing images of animals. The site was cleared of any troublesome vegetation to avoid thousands of pictures of grasses and branches being captured, as this would drain battery life and fill the memory cards. The cameras were activated on 16 May and were left active for 50 days. The cameras were checked on a weekly basis where batteries were changed, pictures downloaded and any vegetation re-growth cut back.
The pictures were then analysed with a computer software programme called CameraBase. An average of 12,000 pictures were captured and processed each week. For each picture, species, sex, number of individuals, and whether the picture showed left or right side on the animal(s) was entered. Individual hyenas were then identified and sexed using their unique coat patterns. Pictures were then tagged on CameraBase with individual codes. Using a CAPTURE-RECAPTURE model, the team could then calculate an approximate density of hyenas occurring on the reserve, how frequently each frequents the area on the cameras and gain a rough idea of their movements and distribution.
The process of setting up cameras was repeated for Mduna Royal reserve, which was activated on 7 July 2016. The survey ended on 26 August 2016 and the data will be analysed later in the year.
This is the first time this kind of survey has been conducted on Thanda and the team hopes to repeat this every year, keeping ID kits up-to-date. The team would also like to test other methods to compare results, and see which ones are more reliable.
By combining their findings with neighbouring reserves, the team will gain a much better understanding of these poorly understood predators and how they move across our landscapes. This will ultimately inform institutions and policies put in place to best manage and protect our wildlife heritage.
Other valuable biodiversity data will also come of this survey, including rough density estimates and distributions of leopard, smaller carnivores and other elusive species, such as honey badger, white tailed mongoose and aardvark.
The team generously shared some of their fantastic trap images with us…
Content and pictures courtesy of Thanda Safari