Uncovering the role of protected areas and private wildlife businesses for free-ranging carnivores

In their recent Journal of Applied Ecology research, Curveira-Santos et al. look at free-ranging carnivores in South Africa to highlight the importance of maintaining areas under long-term formal protection.

Across southern Africa, the attribution of rights over wildlife has deeply transformed the conservation landscape. The private commercial wildlife industry (ecotourism and hunting) now plays an important role in augmenting and connecting formal protected areas. As a result, seemingly vast savannahs are often complex multi-use conservation landscapes, where formal protected areas coexist with private wildlife business in a human-dominated matrix. While rightly heralded as an economic and political conservation success, the effects of variable management paradigms on the biodiversity maintenance and the function of ecological communities remain unclear and lack empirical evaluation.

Camera-trap surveys in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Carnivores stand at the centre of the debate around decentralised conservation approaches, due to their charisma, financial value, ecological function and propensity to conflict with humans. Yet, management is often orientated towards the charismatic large predators, like lions or cheetahs. Many important carnivore species are therefore left largely overlooked, both in terms of management objectives and research priorities. For these often-inconspicuous predators, which are able to cross wildlife fences and move freely across the landscape, multi-use landscape mosaics represent a myriad of challenges and opportunities. For example, free movement presents options between long-established (‘old’) protected habitats and novel environments (usually restored from livestock farms), like tourism reserves where apex predators often thrive, or game ranches, where apex predators are absent but the risk of conflict with humans is vastly increased.

How then do carnivore communities assemble when presented with the heterogeneity of landscapes defined by varying management and conservation models?

Camera trap being set up. Photo © Michael Langley

In our study, we made use of a unique quasi-experimental setting in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, to explore the relative role of formal protected areas and private wildlife businesses for free-ranging carnivore conservation. We conducted an extensive camera-trap survey across a protection gradient spanning: a provincial protected area (108-year-old uMkhuze Game Reserve, part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park UNESCO World Heritage Site), a private ecotourism reserve (Mun-ya-wana Private Game Reserve), commercial game ranches, and traditional communal areas (disturbance reference).

We set 294 cameras for an average of 75 days per camera. This effort resulted in 7224  images of 13 free-ranging carnivores across the entire landscape. Carnivores ranged in size from the small mongooses (<2kg) to much larger leopards and spotted hyaenas (>50kg). We analysed the multi-species site occupancy data using a Bayesian hierarchical community model, stratifying by landscape context (i.e., the four levels of protection) and formally compared community patterns at multiple biological scales.

leopard 2 credit Gonçalo Curveira-Santos
A leopard: just one example of the free-ranging carnivore species found. Photos © Gonçalo Curveira-Santos

Interestingly, we found that the number and identity of species was similar in all wildlife-oriented areas (protected area, private reserve and game ranches) and markedly lower in the communal area. Despite these similarities in species richness, a coarse conservation tool, there was important variation in species occupancy rates (proxy for abundance) that was mainly driven by the level and nature of protection. Free ranging carnivores were generally more common in the formal protected area than in the adjacent private lands (the private reserve and game ranch), and rare in the communal lands.

Our findings provide empirical support for the added value of multi-tenure conservation estates augmenting and connecting South Africa’s protected areas. Both the similar carnivore richness between the private reserve and game ranches and the higher occupancy compared to communal lands reflects the ability of carnivores to thrive in private wildlife areas. Alike protected areas, private ecotourism reserves can provide suitable habitat with seemingly minimal human interference. For species less susceptible to conflict, game ranches under extensive management and low cattle stocking rates may play a similar role by expanding the amount of available habitat with abundant resources and low human encroachment.

Graphical abstract

However, our emphasis on so-far overlooked free-ranging carnivores exemplifies the importance of maintaining areas under long-term formal protection, and the potential risks associated with viewing lucrative wildlife business as a conservation panacea. The higher carnivore occupancy in the formal protected area illustrates well the need for adequate conservation benchmarks guiding management and conservation models.  ‘Old’ protected areas such as uMkhuze are the closest references to pristine nature in highly transformed landscapes of South Africa (with exception of few larger systems like Kruger National Park), Contrastingly, the widespread implementation of private wildlife areas is a relatively recent process and unmanaged carnivores outside long-term protected areas echo a more natural restoration process of depleted populations. Cleary more research is needed to understand what factors may be hindering species recovery in these ‘newer environments’ to the levels observed in the formal protected area, and importantly, what are the ecological consequences of such patterns. These are central to uncovering of the intricacies that underlie predator management plans and ecosystem-wide effects of domestication and commodification of wildlife.

We suggest that unmanaged and free-raging carnivore species be formal components of carnivore reintroduction and recovery programs to better gauge the complementary conservation role of South Africa’s private land. In general terms, our work adds to the call for a more holistic perspective of wildlife for effective conservation planning. In the meantime, ensuring the long-term maintenance of formal protected areas is probably our safest bet.

Read the full article, Responses of carnivore assemblages to decentralized conservation approaches in a South African landscape, in Journal of Applied Ecology.

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