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Collars help reduce human-wildlife conflict

Wildlife collars help conservationists study wildlife. Image: As originally published by The Chronicle.

Mahlabezulu Zulu, The Chronicle | July 6, 2021
Growing up in a community neighbouring the biggest national park in Zimbabwe, the 14 600 square kilometres Hwange National Park l had an experience with many wild animals.For those with the same experience, especially from Dete and some parts of Tsholotsho, they would agree that most wild animals respect human habitat especially during the day. Understanding the habits and habitats of certain species requires a lot of research about that animal for continuous existence and reduced human-animal conflict.

Some of the wild animals have been targeted by researchers for study as they are facing extinction. Such animals include the painted dog, black and white rhino. It is good that some researchers have expanded their research programs, and animals like lions and elephant have been included in such valuable researches despite their ‘healthy’ populations in Zimbabwe.

In carrying out such wild animal researches, a lot of expensive resources are mobilised for a successful mission. The resources include radio transmitter collars, tranquilizers and dart guns, some of them costing up to about US$2 000 each.

Many questions have been asked by those who see such collared wild animals for the first time. How did they catch and collar that lion? What is the purpose of that collar on that painted dog? When correctly and clearly answered, one will understand why some of these wild animals are collared.

To understand collaring, one can equate that to putting a bell on a cow or donkey to monitor its movement. With the development of modern technology, that is, use of computers, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and camera traps, monitoring the movement of wild animals which in most cases covers a wide range, is much easier.

Collaring, researching on wild animals as l stated earlier is beneficial in terms of studying animal behaviour, monitoring its population and in some cases it has been used to solve human and wildlife conflict in communities bordering national parks or forestry areas. In solving conflicts, a collared animal’s movement can be monitored through its GPS connected telemetry system.

For example, if a collared lion’s GPS coordinates indicate that it is in communal areas, locals will be immediately notified to graze their livestock in safer places. It is good that some wildlife research organisations like the Hwange Lion Research came up with a program which also monitors the movement of collared lions into communal areas through its Lion Guardian Program.

Some communities are in Tsholotsho area, but sharing the borders with Hwange National Park. In Hwange area, communities like Gwayi and Lupote have also benefitted from the same livestock protection program.

My experiences have compelled me to share with those who follow wildlife stories in this newspaper. The experiences range from monitoring a collared lion leading to discovery of an elephant carcass with its ivory, a painted dog in one of the villages- killed and collar taken for display in a homestead! As part of wildlife research work, daily monitoring of the GPS coordinates of the collared animals under research enables the researcher to have proper guidance towards achieving the best results.

If the coordinates of the collared animal keep on changing with a significant range, it shows the animal under monitoring is alive and having its normal movement. Suspicion is aroused if the GPS coordinates remain the same or slightly change over some days. If there is no change for days, the possibility is that the animal might be dead, but, if there is slight change it is either the animal was caught by a snare or not feeling well therefore it has limited movements.

There was one time when we realised that one of the collared lions had slight movement for about three days, and we thought it was caught by a snare because it was close to one of the communal areas near Hwange National Park in Tsholotsho communal area. Using our wildlife research, monitoring and wild animal life saving techniques, we then tracked it.

As we moved closer towards the spot, we were met by a strong smell of decaying flesh and thought it was the decaying lion’s carcass, only to discover it was the collared lion feeding on a large elephant bull carcass! This was a learning curve, discovering that a lion can also show slight movements on the GPS for some days when it is feeding.

While the tracking of a collared lion which had slightly moved for some days led to fruitful results, that of discovering an elephant carcass with its tasks, it is unfortunate that some of the follow ups have led to cases where some villagers snare and kill these wild animals being attracted to some of these collars. After killing the wild animal, the collars are taken home for display without knowing that this will mislead researchers when they track the collared animal.

In one case in Gwayi area, being led by the same GPS telemetry system, we tracked a collared painted dog and found the radio transmitter collar hanging in a granary. In another incident we tracked a collared painted dog and the system led us to a collar which was buried in a river bed. The painted dog had been killed.

It is recommended that communities around national parks or forestry areas, should work hand in hand with wildlife research organisations operating in their areas to protect wild animals as some of the information collected from the researches is used by students in some of our institutions of higher learning –students studying ecology, wildlife and forestry and the same researches can also assist in solving human and wildlife conflict!

*Mahlabezulu Zulu is a conservationist who has worked for various wildlife research, and conservation organizations in Hwange National Parks and Fuller Forestry in Victoria Falls area.