Written by and Photo Courtesy of Jon Phillips
During my time in Thanda, the beauty of the wildlife never ceased to amaze me. It was during a game drive that I was truly fortunate to witness this emotional elephant encounter. Elephants are highly sociable animals, and follow a matriarchal society, where the oldest female elephant leads the herd. Male bulls often lead solitary lives and can be seen fighting for dominance amongst each other. Moments of compassion like pictured are rare but breath-taking to see.
Through my experiences at Thanda Private Game reserve in South Africa, I have learned first-hand that the efforts of conservation are a necessity for the continuation of sustainable wildlife and ecotourism. Elephants have been known to consume about 250 kg of vegetation per day, uprooting entire trees in order to better access their roots and under-bark, which in turn can kill the trees. With such capability for destruction, it is of crucial importance to monitor their environmental impact. We, the people at Operation Wallacea and volunteer university students, conduct habitat assessments at Thanda to better monitor elephant impact on the vegetation of the reserve. Habitat assessments involve evaluating vegetation within 5x5m squares, and look to examine possible damage. The types of damage to vegetation that we record includes elephant damage, fire damage, and others (including black rhino, porcupine, termite and more), but we mainly focus on elephant and fire damage. When fires are lit (man-made fire control is a method used here to help natural recycling of nutrients to occur in a safe, controlled manner) they spread more in areas that have less vegetation, which we can relate to elephant damage. The aim of this research is to be able to properly assess the impact elephants have on the ecosystems within the reserve and to determine how many more elephants Thanda can support in the future. Since birds are a good indicator species for biodiversity, we conducted bird point counts at each of the habitat sites to relate biodiversity to elephant damage. An indicator species is a species that is easy to see, track and hear and can be used as an indication of the environment’s health.
I strongly encourage more university volunteers to participate in the OpWall program, as it has enhanced my views on conservation and trophy hunting, amongst many other topics discussed in lectures here. I will use this experience in my future to advance my exploration of possible research careers, and hopefully one day, I will make my way back to the beautiful South Africa.