College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Ford Wildlife Foundation Vehicles Boost Life Sciences Research

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Research on hippos fish, herps, birds and other mammals by students and researchers in UKZN’s School of Life Sciences is benefitting from a donation by the Ford Wildlife Foundation (FWF) of two Ford Ranger (double cab) 4×4 vehicles.

The vehicles are part of Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa’s (FMCSA) commitment to the conservation and preservation of the environment in sub-Saharan Africa. The FMCSA handles maintenance of the vehicles during their use by partner organisations undertaking conservation work.

Overseen by Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, the research activities supported by these vehicles include projects exploring the impacts of changing land use, including urbanisation, on biodiversity.

The vehicles enable researchers to access various research and field sites across several provinces, as they are capable of traversing all kinds of terrain found in South Africa’s nature reserves, parks and protected areas.

Downs and her team have been using one of the vehicles in their investigations into threats faced by vultures and other wildlife in South Africa as a result of anthropogenic land-use change. This vehicle has now been replaced by a newer model by the FWF for continued work on the threatened birds, mammals and other species that will contribute to improved conservation, management and public awareness.

The recently received second vehicle will be used on a project on one of Africa’s most iconic species, the hippopotamus. Classified as vulnerable with their numbers showing significant decline since the 1990s, hippos are not only valuable to the tourism industry but also play an important role in their environment as ecosystem engineers.

Despite their importance, Downs pointed out that research on these megaherbivores is limited and scarce, and since they rely on water bodies and nearby grasslands that are threatened by changing land use and the effects of climate change, their persistence is in peril, presenting detrimental, cascading consequences for already vulnerable aquatic and riparian environments.

In light of the effects of hippos on their physical environment, the nutrient contributions they make, and significant human-wildlife conflict, Downs and her team have been investigating aspects of the behaviour and ecology of hippos since 2015. This will contribute to a better understanding of their ecological role in South African aquatic and terrestrial systems, in the hope that this will help mediate sources of human-hippo wildlife conflict and close research gaps in hippo ecology and behaviour.

Novel telemetry methods are being used to assess hippo spatial ecology, home range and activity in rivers, lakes and small semi-rural lake systems and associated grasslands as well as using drones to estimate population sizes and preferred habitats.

‘We are most grateful for the FWF’s continued support of field research,’ said Downs. ‘Globally, there has been a decline in field research often because of the associated travel costs and difficulties in getting to field sites. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this. Conservation measures for several taxa are urgently needed. This is especially relevant for wetland species, such as hippos, living in regions of the world where logistic or economic constraints curtail field research.

‘The FWF is making a major contribution to our research capabilities with their continued and exceptional vehicle support,’ said Downs. ‘This allows collection of biological information that is fundamental to improve the understanding of anthropogenic impacts on habitats and ecosystems so these can be recognised, mitigated or averted to improve conservation strategies.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied