Conservation and Environment in South Africa: Monthly Updates
Botswana Conservation Monthly Update: May-June 2014
The winter is with us, welcome to the sunny days and cold evening. Most probably you will not believe us, Africa is always hot you will tell us, but don’t fool yourself the coldness is here at night. Yesterday our weather station gave us 0.7 degrees during the night. So be prepared to bring warm clothes for the chilly nights, but during the day it can be pretty hot, up to 33.4 degrees in the sun yesterday.
The weather has changed and so has the vegetation, the autumn colours are all around us; red, orange, yellow, which make for beautiful pictures. During this period the water has become scarce and animals have started to regroup around the permanent waterholes of the Reserve. Elephants (Loxodonta Africana), greater kudus (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), impalas (Aepyceros melampus), giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), plains zebras (Equus quagga), common warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus), spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) etc. All come to drink during the day or at night much to the delight of the volunteers waiting in a hide to look and record them for our research.
With so much work to do around the reserve between the research projects and the hard, physical work to maintain and improve the reserve, every day is a new adventure to learn more about the bush, the African wildlife and to keep our muscles warm. Thanks to our hard working volunteers we have made good progress in several of our projects.
Of course we also get some nice sightings, nearly 30 elephants around our car, a fast but amazing leopard (Panthera pardus) crossing close to us, giraffe coming near the camp for the pleasure of everybody, spotted hyena making a visit to us for a birthday bush dinner, the roar of lions (Panthera leo) at night and fresh footprints close to the camp or just our lovely impala jumping around us and showing us their fitness. The bush is an everyday adventure, every day is different and we just love it!
African elephants (Loxodonta Africana) are the largest land mammals on earth. A big male can eat up to 300kg a day (4-7% of its body weight) and drink more than 100 litres per day. They need to cover a lot of land to find all the food and water that they need. Between winter (dry season) and summer (rainy season), how the elephants spread out can vary depending on water and food sources. A lot of them tend to gather around waterholes in winter, which has a direct impact on the surrounding vegetation.
Elephants live in a matriarchal society, with an old dominant female leading the way for her family to find the good feeding areas and the waterholes. Males are more solitary or group together as bachelors. It is very important to identify the matriarch of the family or a bull to better understand their movements in the reserve. Elephant identification is based on personal features like ear notches, tusk shape, tail hairs and any distinguishing element that can help to recognize an elephant.
As it was a hot afternoon, we went to water sources in the Reserve to look for elephants as this was our best chance of finding them. We were lucky enough to find a herd of 9 individuals with 2 females, 6 sub-adults and one child. We made a note of the matriarch’s remarkable traits and took lots of pictures to help recognize her and her family in the future. The volunteers really enjoyed the experience and learnt a lot of interesting facts about elephants, such as the difference in male and female behavior. However, the most memorable moment was when the herd of elephants passed just 3 meters in front of our car.
Picnics at the ready, all volunteers were ready for a day of walking by the Limpopo River to count crocodiles. The Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) is a very important species for the freshwater ecosystem, and a good indicator of a healthy river. It is an unmistakable species that grows to up to 7m in length, weighs up to 1000kg and lives to be over a century old. Good weather is important to increase our chances of seeing the crocodiles outside of the water as they like to bask on the edge to soak up the sun.
The crocodile is exothermic and needs the sun to increase its corporal temperature. We walked 2.5 km along the edge, taking care to be as quiet as possible as crocodiles are very sensitive to vibrations and they will go straight into the water if they suspect any danger. If they are in the water, it is much more difficult for us to estimate their size. Of the ten crocodiles that we saw, the largest was about 4.2m long, which is a good size for the area. All the volunteers really enjoyed the survey, the sun, the surroundings, and the fun of trying to be as quiet as possible to get closer to the animals (still maintaining 20m distance) and take pictures.
Who would ever think to have an experience of repairing an international bridge? The closest bridge that we use to cross from Botswana to South Africa was badly damaged during the rainy season. However, with the help of all of our volunteers, our neighbors and the local community, the bridge looks even better than before. Three days of hard work and a lot of shoveling and cement were necessary to give a new life to this important border.
On the first day, we removed all the logs and branches that were causing an obstruction on the bridge and for it to flood. Some of the branches and trees were really big and difficult to move but together we managed to remove them and allow the water to flow freely under the bridge again. Thanks to this hard work, the level of the water dropped and allowed us to fix the bridge properly. On the second day, we stored the sand in a dry drainage pipe for future concrete. It was a hard and very big job but really good for our muscles. On the third day, we mixed the sand, stone and cement to make concrete to fix the upper part of the bridge. The goal was to make all of the concrete in one day in order to strengthen the structure.
The volunteers worked really hard all day but also had a lot of fun and we all had the chance to write our names on the bridge. So when you come to visit us, have a look on the bridge! You may see some names: Leon, Chou, Cora, Hidde, Hans…
We started patrolling our veterinary fence that separates the wildlife from the grazing animals owned by the local villagers. This fence is 300km long (yes, that is a long fence) and is an important tool in keeping conflict down between owners of livestock and wildlife. For this reason, we need to check it to make sure that no wildlife can pass through to the community area; that there is no hole that may allow predators or elephants to cross over.
For our first visit, we walked more than 3km and found several holes. All problems were recorded along with their GPS locations and pictures. There were four holes that had been used by wildlife and we repaired them straight away with rocks and logs. All of this important work will help to keep the peace between humans and wildlife. The best moment of the activity was when we climbed a kopje and saw the amazing view of all the surroundings. We could see so far; it was unbelievable.
Dams and any water source play an important role in stocking up on water for the winter, which is the dry season here. Some of our dams are permanent (there is water throughout the year) and some are temporary and drawn from over the course of the winter. A good dam needs to be waterproof across the bottom and the sides and in good shape to work properly. Elephants (Loxodonta Africana) and other animals can affect whether the dam remains in good condition or not. Elephants are often seen walking along the edge and because of their weight (a big male can reach 6 tons), the edge can become weak and water can leak from it as a result.
Together with the volunteers, we placed spikey branches along the top of the walls to protect the dam from being destroyed. Our previous attempts had been vanquished over time with the rain and animals causing the branches to fall in the dam. Sadly, nobody was willing to take a bath in the dam after our efforts but maybe next time they will. I had always thought that mud was good for the skin!
We are all aware of the importance of conserving the environment and doing the best we can to protect it. So at Motswiri Camp, we have decided to use as many eco-friendly products as possible. Most of the products you buy in the store are really harmful to the environment due to the high level of phosphates and other harmful products that they contain.
We conducted our first recycling workshop with the volunteers this month. This session was focused on eco-friendly washing products for clothes and dishes. It was funny to see the faces of the volunteers when I showed them how you can make a washing product with ashes. Yes, you read it properly: ashes!
The recipe is simple:
Use ashes from burnt wood and mix two cups with one litre of water. Leave it to soften for 24 to 36 hours and stir it from time to time. After it has broken down, filter the liquid. Firstly, you need to filter it with a big cloth or a sieve. Then filter it with as small a sieve as possible to remove the ash residue from the finished product. The liquid at the end is yellow. For our eco-friendly dishwashing product, we use a mixture of lemon, water, white vinegar and coarse salt. There are many exciting recipes but we are still at the research stage. We will have several trials over the next few months to see which ones are the easiest and most efficient.
The workshop was very successful. The goal is also to change young people’s perception and mind set. After all, they are the future.
Judi Gounaris and Sophie Juget