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The Bubye Valley conservancy--the future of wildlife in Africa.

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From the mins of a land once dedicated to cattle ranching and the systematic and ruthless eradication of wildlife, the Bubye Valley Conservancy has risen as one of the most amazing and encouraging conservation successes in Africa.

History

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Liebig's Extract of Meat Company (LEMCO) founded an extensive cattle ranch in the Zimbabwean lowveld, which was to the detriment of the indigenous wildlife that was initially eliminated because of competition for grazing with the livestock, whilst buffalo and wildebeest also posed a risk of disease transmission. Subsequently, the predators received the brunt of the persecution when they began to prey on the livestock as their natural prey base became depleted. Although some wildlife persisted in small pockets of remote habitat, the lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino were all completely extenninated. A monoculture of cattle dominated the landscape and impacted on the enviromnent for the better part of a century.

Then, in 1992, Zimbabwe suffered one of the worst droughts on record, a relatively short time after the devastating one of 1983 that LEMCO was still trying to recover from. The frequency and severity of the droughts effectively ended the economic viability of cattle ranching in the area, and the Bubye Valley Conservancy was subsequently founded in 1994 by a visionary who understood that wild animals were better adapted than livestock to cope with the local climate.

Today

The conversion from cattle ranching back to a wildlife area was neither straightforward nor cheap, requiring a huge investment and significant annual running costs. But this was all worth it, because today the Bubye Valley Conservancy boasts the world's third largest Black rhino population, Zimbabwe's largest lion population, a flourishing elephant population, and abundant game; an impressive accomplishment given just 20 years of operation. Sustainable trophy hunting, based on an old fashioned respect for ethics, provides the incentive and revenue to achieve this amazing conservation success--and for that the Bubye Valley Conservancy makes no apology because without this none of those animals would be there.

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Community Support

The conception of the Bubye Valley Conservancy required an incredible amount of foresight, but also the wisdom to realise that in the business of wildlife conservation there is no success unless you have the support of the surrounding communities. The conservancy donates over 45 tonnes of meat to the local communities eachyear, which effectively removes the incentive for meat poaching. In addition to this, the conservancy also supports several schools, clinics, and community projects in the three surrounding districts of Mwenezi, Maranda and Jopempe. This costs the conservancy over US$ 100 000 per year, but is worth every cent in ensuring community support and tolerance for the wildlife. Indeed, the support of the local communities can prove invaluable in thwarting the efforts of poachers.

Anti-Poaching

As many rhino populations in Africa dwindle due to relentless persecution by armed gangs of poachers, rhino population strongholds such as the Bubye Valley Conservancy are coming under increasing pressure.

Black rhinos are a critically endangered species, and the Bubye Valley Conservancy Black rhino population was founded in 2002 by animals that were in desperate need of a safe haven following Zimbabwe's land reform program in 2000. Given its size, habitat quality, and competent management, the Bubye Valley Conservancy was the ideal refuge for rhinos from other areas that could not cope with the renewed poaching onslaught. Having a small population of white rhino at the time, the conservancy shareholders agreed to take the Black rhinos, not realising just how big a task and responsibility they were accepting, and that they were to become the custodian on behalf of the Zimbabwean government of what is now the largest Black rhino population on private land.

As rhino populations were decimated elsewhere in Zimbabwe, the attention of the criminal syndicates increasingly focused on the Bubye Valley Conservancy. This required an urgent shift of attitude and aptitude by staff who never envisaged themselves being engaged in an increasingly desperate and dangerous war to protect the rhino. With these syndicates becoming ever more sophisticated and increasing their operational efficiency, the costs of protection have soared beyond what the income from safaris can cover without cutting back on maintaining the high standard of operation that the Bubye Valley Conservancy is renowned for. It is important to note that the Conservancy receives no financial support at all from the Zimbabwean government for the protection of these rhinos.

The coimnercial poaching of rhino in the Bubye Valley Conservancy began in mid-2008 on the heels of widespread poaching of zebra for the illegal trade in hides. To counter this threat, the conservancy employed a full-time manager to coordinate and conduct anti-poaching operations. The initial emphasis was placed on equipping scouts with uniforms and basic field equipment, and radio communications were expanded with a separate security channel. Bonuses and incentives were also introduced to raise morale.

In 2011, the conservancy imported 80 LM5 semi-automatic rifles for self defense of the anti-poaching scouts as the criminal syndicates were equipping themselves with silenced rifles and Kalashnikovs, and specialised training in field tactics and tracking procedures was provided to the scouts.

During the first three years of having the rhinos, and whilst establishing the anti-poaching effort, the Bubye Valley Conservancy lost about 40 animals. With the assistance from another conservancy, the principal players responsible for the poaching were either apprehended or eliminated by the end of 2011. The yearly losses to poaching then dropped to less than 10 rhino per year.

However, in 2014, rhino poaching entered a new phase as the anti-poaching scouts themselves became involved in the illegal trade either by supplying information to criminal syndicates or directly killing the animals themselves. This has presented a massive challenge in tenns of operational security and procedures.

The Conservancy increased its system of rewards and incentives using funds donated principally by the hunting clients of the Bubye Valley Conservancy, and special mention must be made of professional hunters John Sharp and Pete Fick who have made outstanding efforts through their clients to source funds for anti-poaching. The Beit Trust also donated a state-of-the-art digital radio system that has GPS capability, and which helps to coordinate patrol movements and monitor coverage of the area.

Tracking Dogs

The recent increase of poaching incursions has stretched the anti-poaching team beyond reasonable limits, and the Bubye Valley Conservancy has therefore initiated a project to deploy a tracker dog unit to counter the efforts of the poachers. Hmnan trackers cannot follow what they cannot see, even when they know that poachers are afoot, and poachers use this to their advantage by doing their dirty work at last light and trying to escape before dawn. These tracker dogs, the Malinois (Belgian Shepherd Dogs), will, however, allow pursuit operations to extend into the night, and the poachers will be unable to hide and will lose the advantage of the darkness. We also anticipate that these dogs will become a massive deterrent to the poachers, who will have to reconsider the pros and cons of their occupation.

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The Malinois is used as a working animal for tasks including sniffing for explosives, accelerants, and drags, as well as for the tracking of humans--both criminals and lost souls in search-and-rescue missions. The U.S. Secret Service even uses the Malinois to guard the White House.

Most importantly, these dogs will not be exclusively used at the Bubye Valley Conservancy, but will be based near the Matopos National Park (which has the largest rhino population in Zimbabwe's Parks' estates) and with a fast reaction helicopter so that they can be rapidly deployed wherever they are needed in the country. They have even been offered to assist the Zimbabwe Republic Police force in tracking down criminals when not chasing poachers.

Conservation Research

With such foresight, and the dedication of the staff and supporters, it is no coincidence that the Bubye Valley Conservancy is the custodian of the world's third largest Black rhino population. It should therefore come as no surprise that, with the same team at the helm, the Bubye Valley Conservancy is also responsible for maintaining Zimbabwe's largest lion population, which now exists at one of the highest densities in Africa.

After originally being eradicated by the cattle ranchers, 13 lions were reintroduced to the Bubye Valley Conservancy in 1999, and four young males broke into the Conservancy that same year. Cats are extremely prolific breeders if given the space and resources, and the Bubye Valley Conservancy lion population soon exploded.

As the apex predator in Africa, lions play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystem functioning. However, predators can affect the ecology and population dynamics of other species, including other carnivores, not just by killing them, but also by causing behavioural changes in response to both the real and perceived risk of predation. Therefore, in addition to direct killing, the indirect consequences of predation have a huge role in affecting the population demographics, fitness and density of other key ecological species.

In 2009, the University of Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) initiated a national leopard research project and began surveying wildlife areas throughout Zimbabwe to get a handle on the status of its leopard population. The spoor-transect method employed was both time and cost efficient, and involved covering a certain distance per unit area, and recording all of the individual leopard tracks encountered that were less than a day old. This method works even better for lions, and so simultaneously allowed the calculation of lion densities in these same areas with no extra effort. The Bubye Valley Conservancy was obviously one of the most important areas to survey based on its sheer size and contribution to Zimbabwe's wildlife. By this time the conservancy management was also starting to become quite concerned about the potential ecological impact that the ever-increasing lion population was having. From the original 17 animals present in 1999, the Bubye Valley Conservancy lion population was estimated to be approximately 280 individuals in 2009, and has continued to grow. The survey results and follow-up discussion confirmed the Conservancy's fears that their lion population was growing exponentially and could soon start affecting the local ecology. Today it is estimated that there are nearly 500 lions roaming the Conservancy, which is of concern to management and conservationists alike because of the negative impact that these super predators can have on just about all other animal populations, including those of predators.

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Thus began the partnership between Oxford and the Conservancy, and in 2010 the WildCRU Bubye Valley Conservation Research Initiative was established with a doctoral research project focused on the impact of lions on the behavioural ecology of leopards. But just how far did the rabbit hole go? As the project grew, it uncovered even more ecologically relevant questions, and in 2012 a second doctoral study was launched that carried on from and supported the previous research. This continuity underlies the strength of the project, because only long-tenn data can reveal complex ecological processes and allow informed decision-making.

Apart from the annual surveys to monitor trends in population densities, the researchers also utilise technology such as satellite collars to investigate movement, interactions, behavioural triggers and habitat use. Camera-traps simultaneously deployed over an expansive area allow the refining and calibration of density estimates, and also provide accurate information on population demographics, recruitment and survival. Recently, we fitted the first ever audio loggers to the lion collars, which have been analysed using novel machine-learning computer algorithms that can accurately identify individuals by their unique vocalisations, as well as properly classify behaviour such as hunting, killing, drinking and fighting. This is exciting stuff because, so far, it has been impossible to simultaneously monitor such a large sample of wild animals to the level that we are now able to.

The research on the relationship between lions and leopards has shown that high densities of lions can negatively affect leopard population density, demographic structure, cub survival, and spatial ecology down to even the step-wise decisions that leopards make regarding habitat use and behavior based on both the actual and potential risk of encountering lions. Leopards are a generalist species that are able to cope with persecution by adapting their behaviour and ecological niche, and even they suffer under a burgeoning lion population; ecological specialists and endangered species, such as cheetah and wild dogs, may not fare nearly as well under such intense competitive pressure. This should be of concern to anyone interested in wildlife, as simply increasing the abundance of one species to the detriment of others cannot be considered a conservation success.

But what do you do with excess lions? There is no space left in Africa for them; everywhere that can have lions already does, and their greatest threat is habitat destruction and intolerance by local communities that encroach on wildlife areas in competition for grazing with the natural prey of lions, and subsequently persecute them in retaliation for killing livestock. And, despite the sensation, responsible trophy hunting cannot significantly affect lion population density or long-term persistence--which is really the definition of sustainable resource management.

Luckily, lions kill lions, and probably naturally account for more mortality of their kind than by any other source. The best-case scenario would be that lions putatively control their own population, facilitating survival-of-the-fittest in its purest form. The area required for this to occur, before over-predation on sensitive species and out-competing endangered carnivores, is obviously quite large; this should be a huge incentive for the creation of the mega-conservancies such as the Bubye Valley and Save Valley Conservancies in Zimbabwe. The smaller fenced-off and isolated properties that dominate the wildlife industry restrict gene flow between populations and affect normal animal behaviour, and their contribution to genuine conservation is therefore negligible.

The Bubye Valley Conservation Research Initiative is one of the only lion research projects to be based in a trophy hunting area, and is therefore of critical importance because there is more land conserved for hunting in Africa than there is in all of its National Parks network combined. Think about that. There are also far more lions, at much greater population densities, in hunting areas than anywhere else in Zimbabwe. Lions thrive given the resources and protection incentivised by sustainable off-take. Understanding the behavioural ecology of lions in these areas is therefore just as important, if not more so, than research conducted elsewhere.

The Future

History has taught us that the future of wildlife anywhere is not guaranteed, and indeed may be in a very precarious position in developing countries where animals usually lose to humans in the fight for natural resources. However, the Bubye Valley Conservancy is one of those marvelous exceptions that even hardened conservation cynics find inspiring. It is hard to argue with the success of the Bubye Valley Conservancy and its contribution to actual wildlife conservation; in so many ways, this is the conservation model that most of the wildlife areas left in Africa should follow.

If you are interested to find out more about the Bubye Valley Conservancy and its special projects, have a look at our website: mvw.bubyevalleycomervancy.com. Depending how busy we are with fieldwork at the time, we try to keep it regularly updated with news articles and photos.

Support Us

We will win the fight against rhino poaching; it is just a matter of time. We will also continue to conduct relevant and practical ecological research using cutting-edge technology and novel algorithms that improve the understanding of our sensitive relationship with nature. Please get in touch with us if you are able to support us in any way. Contact details can be found on the website. Every contribution is a direct investment in the future of wildlife and real conservation in Africa. Happy camping.
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Title Annotation:African Perspectives: The Dark Continent in Discussion
Author:duPreez, Byron; English, Norman
Publication:African Hunter Magazine
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jun 1, 2016
Words:2636
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