Investigating the presence and persistence of mammals in urban forest fragments in the eThekwini Municipality Area (EMA) is what Dr Manqoba Zungu of the School of Life Sciences did in research for his PhD which forms part of the Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP).
Zungu explained that the biodiverse yet urbanised EMA, populated by 3.5 million people and comprising high rates of poverty, fell within a region undergoing rapid landscape changes informed by various factors.
He was motivated to undertake the research after seeing high levels of landscape change in KwaZulu-Natal in all three major forest types in South Africa that support a rich forest mammal assemblage. According to Zungu, an average of 1.2% of natural habitat has been lost in KwaZulu-Natal annually since 1994.
He set out to establish how wildlife adapt and persist in this human dominated landscape in order to guide conservation action, and examined how anthropogenic disturbance affected the persistence abilities of forest mammals in an urban-forest mosaic in the EMA, home to a third of the province’s human population. This was to fill a research gap on forest mammal communities in metropolitan areas in South Africa and determine the conservation importance of forest fragments in urban areas by assessing the occurrence of forest-dependent mammals.
Zungu used remotely triggered camera trapping to survey elusive species constricted by metropolitan area infrastructure. Mammals are one of the most threatened taxa globally, particularly forest dependent mammals who have specific food and habitat requirements under threat from habitat loss and fragmentation.
He recommended making the response to landscape change a research priority, and hoped his research would inform integration of biodiversity conservation into urban planning, resulting in the city of Durban becoming more ecologically sustainable.
‘Assessing biodiversity patterns in highly urbanised landscapes can provide crucial information towards the management of these areas, guiding habitat conservation measures and raising public awareness,’ said Zungu.
Zungu was surprised to discover that forest fragments still harbour significant mammalian diversity despite the high levels of urban development in the area, suggesting that management efforts aimed at protecting the remaining natural habitat from further loss are urgently needed.
His work also described species-specific responses to habitat disturbances, suggesting that landscape management approaches should consider habitat requirements of multiple species.
‘In the planning phase of future development projects, ecologists, town planners, land managers, conservationists and other relevant stakeholders should take the whole landscape structure into account, including the urban matrix, to ensure the conservation of rich native mammalian assemblages,’ he said.
Zungu, who completed his undergraduate, honours and master’s studies at UKZN, won awards for presenting this research at several D’RAP symposia and is continuing with postdoctoral research. He has published several papers from his research in journals and presented his work at symposia and conferences. He received several awards during the course of his studies and hopes to pursue a career in ecology and wildlife conservation.
He thanked his supervisors, Professor Colleen Downs, Dr Tharmalingam Ramesh and Dr Riddhika Kalle, for their support in his studies, and his mentor Mr Seth Hakizimana as well as his friends, particularly Tholinhlanhla Mzimela, Ntaki Senoge and Nkanyiso Sithole. He also thanked his family and current and previous members of Downs’ research laboratory, especially Vuyisile Thabethe, Mfundo Maseko and Moses Chibesa.
Words: Christine Cuénod
Photograph: Gugu Mqadi and Supplied