Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa – Mountainous environments are becoming increasingly important as conservation refuges for many mammalian species in South Africa, especially in the face of growing pressures from farming and other commercial activities. These and other changes in the use of mountainous lands, along with government land reforms, pose heightened risks to the conservation potential of these regions.
On this expedition, you'll assist scientists conducting research in three areas that are critical for conserving mammals in South Africa: (1) investigating the presence and diversity of keystone and flagship species within the Soutpansberg mountains, and assessing the population stability of species of conservation concern; (2) assessing the extent of human-wildlife conflict, especially in the contexts of livestock losses due to predators and crop-raiding from primates, and investigating possible mitigation strategies; (3) increasing environmental awareness in local communities to help them respond to the conservation challenges of land reform and land use change.
More specifically, the researchers need your help to continue their work on two important groups of mammals: large predators and the diurnal (daytime) primate community. While camera-trap data have established that the Soutpansberg region hosts healthy populations of many predators, with leopard densities amongst the highest ever recorded, research also indicates that these animals suffer from significant levels of hunting and human persecution. Much of this persecution stems from negative perceptions of leopards as predators of livestock, even though studies so far show that livestock are rarely part of leopard diets. By helping monitor the region's predator populations, you can help the scientists ensure that human activities don't put these populations at risk, and provide the data that will help create new ways to address negative perceptions about these animals in the surrounding human communities.
Despite leopard's bad reputations, primates are cited even more often as the major pest species by many landowners. (And since some of these primate species are critical prey species for leopards, studying these animals at the same time is important to understanding how their populations interact with each other and with the human population.) You'll find that Chacma baboons, vervet monkeys, and samango monkeys are fascinating field subjects. Because they habituate, or get used to, the close proximity of researchers, they allow opportunities for a detailed study and understanding of their behaviors--including their many similarities to us, their primate relatives, most notably their obvious intelligence.
Unfortunately, this intelligence leads these primates into conflict with humans, since they are quick to exploit human crops and other food sources. The resulting economic losses and frustration for farmers undermine local conservation efforts. Determining the extent of these conflicts and examining ways for farmers and these primates to co-exist is essential for conserving both species diversity and local livelihoods in the area.
Meet the Scientists
Dr. Russell Hill
Reader, Department of Anthropology,
Durham University, UK
Dr. Hill's main research interests are in the behavioral ecology of primates and other large mammals, with a primary goal of understanding the decisions animals make about their social and reproductive strategies. His research approaches combine field studies with theoretical analyses based on modeling. He runs the Primate & Predator Project at the Lajuma Research Centre in the Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa, and has previously managed other projects in South Africa based at De Hoop Nature Reserve and in the Kruger National Park. His postgraduate students have conducted projects across southern Africa, and increasingly their work is examining mammalian conservation and human-wildlife conflict from an interdisciplinary perspective. He holds a PhD in primate behavioral ecology from the University of Liverpool, UK and an M. Phil from Darwin College, University of Cambridge, UK.
Prof. Ian Gaigher
Director, Lajuma Research Centre/Venda University, South Africa
Oldrich van Schalkwyk
Research Manager, Lajuma Research Centre, South Africa
Lecturer, School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences,
Durham University, UK