When researcher Kristoffer Everatt spotted a movement in the grass while conducting field work in Banhine National Park in Mozambique in July 2015, he wasn’t sure what it was. Stalking carefully towards the unknown animal, he finally parted the grass to stare into the eyes a beautiful black-maned lion crouched about 4metres away.
“We stared at each other for a few heart-pounding seconds until I took the plunge and bluff charged him! He turned away and ran off growling his displeasure into the bush. He had just killed an aardvark and hadn’t yet begun to eat. I was so pleased to find him there, in south-western Banhine eating wild meat,” shared Everatt.
The 7000 square kilometre park in Mozambique’s northern Gaza Province was proclaimed in 1973. Along with Zinave and Limpopo national parks in Mozambique, Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and the Kruger National Park in South Africa, it is part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA).
“Anyone who has been to Mozambique recently will have noticed that the environment is under severe stress and if nodes of conservation are not created and maintained, it may be too late to do anything,” suggests Bernard van Lente, who has been appointed to provide technical assistance to Administracao Nacional de Areas de Conservacao (ANAC), the parks’ managing body, through a five-year co-management agreement with the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF).
“Serving as refugium is possibly the most critical function of these parks, and not just for predator and other animal species, but for certain tree species, particularly those targeted for logging,” he adds.
While wildlife in these parks is scarce compared to other areas in the GLTFCA, Banhine and Zinave are still considered “relative refugium in the context of their surrounding areas in Mozambique, where indications are that very little wildlife is left at all,” says Gonarezhou-based conservationist Elsabe van der Westhuizen, who was part of a team that surveyed the area in 2009.
Everatt’s more recent work in Banhine over the last 6 years found evidence of lion, cheetah and wild dog populations, with pockets of carnivores outside of parks too.
“There is a general negative and misguided perception about Limpopo National Park, and a complete lack of knowledge about it and the other parks in Mozambique,” he suggests. The project documented 49 mammal species, including bat-eared fox, aardwolf, African wild dog, serval, giraffe, zebra, roan, eland and sable in the protected areas in Mozambique that form part of the GLTFCA. In Limpopo National Park specifically, they found 35 cheetah and 65 lions, but it was Banhine that surprised them most.
“What we found in Banhine is truly exciting and demonstrates the importance of the area and need for conservation attention,” says Leah Andresen, who worked on the Limpopo Transfrontier Predator Project for five years.
“Historically Zinave had very high game densities and an interesting hunting history as a result,” says PPF’s Antony Alexander, who hopes that with the organisation’s financial and technical support, the park can be restored to its former glory.
“Travelling through the park today one can easily see the reason for its history, with the various large tree species and rich grass areas. The expectation is that the park will have a high game carrying capacity and the focus is to relocate 6,000+ game into the area in coming years, focusing initially on the browsers and grazers,” says Alexander.
The parks, though, which are situated close to rural villages, are under pressure from bush meat and commercial poaching and logging. This affects prey availability, which in turn affects predators. “As a result, the ecosystem is not functioning as it should,” says van Lente.
As well as harming individual animals caught in traps or snares, the practice of bush meat poaching limits prey availability and can drive conflict with humans. Rhino and elephant poaching add another layer of complexity and instances of poisoning are also on the increase. The scale of the problem becomes clear when you look at the number of incidents recorded by Everatt and his team. In 2015 they documented 525 poaching events, removed 135 wire snares and discovered 196 butchered carcases. In the last year, there have been 7 cases of lions having been poisoned. “We have the same needs as them and compete for the same resources in some landscapes,” notes Everatt.
Usually, though, it’s the predators that come off second-best. The lion that Everatt encountered in Banhine, for example, was recently killed, along with a female and two cubs. They had attacked some cattle that were illegally grazing in the national park. In retribution, all four lions were trapped and killed, with their body parts allegedly sold for muti.
To address these issues, van Lente, who is just starting his five-year tenure, plans to work extensively with park staff and communities through “training, improved capacity, strategic use of park resources and improved livelihoods of communities outside park”.
Depending on the success of these interventions, the Mozambican components of the GLTFCA offer large tracts of potential habitat to allow for range and population expansion of species within the GLTFCA. The dream, though, is of corridors connecting these parks in Mozambique with Gonarezhou, and then Limpopo and Kruger national parks.
“We found that the natural corridor between the Zinave and Gonarezhou (Save River), is greatly compromised by human settlement, and we have seen little evidence in the time since then that there are any significant movements of wildlife between the parks, although obviously some of the more cryptic and long-ranging mammals might manage from time to time,” says van der Westhuizen.
“Some of our elephant collar data has shown that elephants have moved in the direction of Banhine, but then turn back to the relative safety of Gonarezhou. Obviously in the longer term, a scenario where there is movement between the 3 Parks, and then Kruger National Park and Limpopo National Park, is the ideal.”
According to PPF’s Anthony Alexander, efforts are underway to take the dream one step closer to reality. “Funding has been set aside to develop community projects around the park, including community conservancy areas linking the parks. These could typically include water points to encourage settlement and movement of wildlife from which the communities would benefit,” he suggests.
In addition, the boundaries for Banhine and Zinave were re-aligned about a year ago to take into account existing community settlements around the parks and to bring the respective Limpopo – Banhine – Zinave parks closer to each other, to improve inter-linkages.
“The development of Zinave will also take into account the needs of Banhine and we are looking at building a 4×4 camp network to link the park, and channelling some anti-poaching support to Banhine,” he confirms.
What will it take to restore these parks?
“Funding and plenty of it,” says van Lente. “As Mozambique is one of the poorest nations in the world, there is a lot of competition for funding. As such, “parks like Banhine and Zinave will be dependent on external funding for a long, long time”.