The Zululand Rhino Reserve (ZRR) wildlife volunteers have been hard at work doing game counts for the past few weeks. Although Wildlife ACT is primarily a wildlife monitoring organisation in South Africa, specializing in monitoring critically endangered and priority African species, we also work closely with the management of the reserves where we are based and assist them when required.
For the past two weeks, our monitors and volunteers have been assisting the management of ZRR with their annual game count. Game counts are an important tool in farm management. They can be “total counts” where the objective is to count all the animals in a given area, or they can be “sample counts”. This is where conclusions about the number of animals in the entire area can be drawn from counts done by sampling smaller surface areas. The results provide information which assists management in maintaining a healthy balance between predator and prey species, as well as between animals and vegetation.
There is no single counting technique that is suitable for all animal species and no counting technique is flawless, but the most consistent methods give a more regular margin of error and are therefore more reliable for effective game reserve management. The cost, the size of the area, the animals to be counted, the type of habitat, the available manpower and the purpose for which the count is required will all influence the final selection of counting techniques that will be used.
On Zululand Rhino Reserve (ZRR), Wildlife ACT volunteers assisted with “road strip counts”. This method was chosen due to the large road network providing reasonable access to most areas, and the homogenous (similar) habitat throughout the reserve. A minimum of 4 people per vehicle (preferably 6) were needed to gather and record the required data. The first person required was, of course, the driver who had to maintain a steady 8 – 10km/hrs along pre-determined stretch of road, twice a day (morning and afternoon) for 2 weeks.
Then 1 or more spotters / counters were needed, their function being to spot, identify and count the different animals – calling out a breakdown of sexes and age classes. This is where a pair of good binoculars come in handy!
The next important member of the team is the data recorder, who enters the information provided by the spotters onto a special data sheet.
The fourth team member operates the equipment used in determining distance and bearing. This is done by using a range finder, a small piece of equipment that uses a laser beam to determine distance and direction. GPS points are also taken and once everything is verified it is recorded on the data sheets along with the relevant animal count.
Once all the information has been gathered in the field, the game counts are totaled for each habitat type, as well as total distance traveled in each area. Now the average visibility distance for each type of habitat and the surface area of the counting strip for each habitat can be calculated. On the basis of these calculations, the game counts can then be converted to the total surface area for each habitat type. Thereafter the totals for the entire game ranch are calculated. A broad indication of habitat preference can also be obtained by calculating the density of each type of animal in a specific habitat.
Although the reason behind the game counts is a serious one and the long hours on the back of a slow moving vehicle in the heat of the day are quite tiring – we were rewarded with some excellent sightings. We came across five sub-adult cheetahs a few times and during one of those sightings they had just made a kill. What great way to start a day of game counting!