New report reveals that citizen science boosts biodiversity research projects in Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve.

In 2018 and 2019, citizen scientists with Biosphere Expeditions supported LWT’s research projects in Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve (VMWR). These projects – which focus on large mammals, elephants, primates, bats and insects – aim to identify and monitor biodiversity and long-term trends in VMWR, which is a critical part of the Malawi-Zambia Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA). Habitats in VMWR are under increasing pressure from climate change and wildlife populations are at risk from threats such as poaching and deforestation.

Field work was conducted by two groups comprising citizen scientists from Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA. The expedition focused on wildlife monitoring of (1) large mammals, through driving and walking line transect surveys and camera trap arrays, (2) the elephant population, through herd observations and identification of individuals, and (3) bat, insect and vegetation monitoring, conducted through standardised bat surveys and light trapping techniques. Citizen scientists also assisted in (4) data collection on primate behaviour as part of LWT’s ongoing primate release programme.

All data contribute to a long-term dataset and monitoring programme in VMWR and the larger Malawi-Zambia TFCA and are shared with local managing groups to empower and influence effective conservation strategies. Findings are summarised below.

Large mammal surveys

Camera trapping surveys were successful and recorded a high species diversity in VMWR (24 species) in 1,670 images. One large carnivore (leopard) and seven mesocarnivores were detected, proving again the success of camera traps at providing data on elusive and nocturnal species. Transect surveys, covering nearly 200km, recorded 11 different species and a 43% encounter rate. Species of note were roan antelope, which are rarely sighted, and puku, as they are classified by the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened. Hippo surveys of the populations in Lake Kazuni along the southern border of VMWR yielded an average of 125 hippos, which is lower than the previous year. Survey results confirm a high species diversity in VMWR.

Elephant monitoring 

Elephants were observed mainly along the shores of Lake Kazuni, with data collected on herd demographics and individual identification. These observations produced numerous second-sighting records and 10 new individual identifications, bringing the total elephant database to more than 200 individuals, which is estimated to be two-thirds of the total VMWR elephant population. 

Bat, insect and vegetation monitoring 

Bat surveys resulted in 51 bats caught representing 11 species. Two new bat species, Myotis bocagii and Laephotis botswanae were recorded for VMWR. Kerivoula lanosa was also caught for the first time in Malawi for African Bat Conservation. Over 9,000 insects were captured in 13 different orders. Four new orders were captured not previously recorded in 2018, although in very low numbers, suggesting they likely occur at low densities in VMWR. In addition, vegetation surveys completed in conjunction with bat and insect surveys provide baseline ecological data and serve as indicators for any changes to the local environment. Climate change and other anthropogenic impacts in VMWR will first be noticed in changes to the vegetation and insects and bats, which feed on them. As such, the continued monitoring of these species is of upmost importance for the conservation management of VMWR.   

Primate behaviour 

In March 2019, LWT released a troop of 13 vervet monkeys into Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. After initial predations and emigrations, the troop observed during this expedition was six individuals. Data collected during the expedition contributed to the year-long post-release monitoring and data collection of the release troop. Activity budgets were determined and showed that the troop mimics wild conspecifics in terms of their activity budgets, with the majority of their time spent being Vigilant, followed by Feeding, Travelling, and spending little time Resting. A social network web was created; reflecting observations that the alpha male was the most central figure in the troop and the beta male was the least, often not seen by observers. Both analyses show that the troop is doing well with their new life in the wild.