REFLECTING ON A YEAR OF BIODIVERSITY MONITORING IN LIWONDE

Happy first birthday to our Biodiversity Monitoring Project! 🎂
 

It’s been just over a year since we launched our research monitoring programme in Liwonde National Park. This marked a particularly significant expansion for our Research team, whose members have held close ties with the park for over five years – and we’ve been incredibly grateful for the opportunity to develop the project alongside Liwonde National Park’s management team. The Biodiversity Monitoring Project was created to support African Parks in Liwonde with the monitoring of priority species, with a focus on reintroduced carnivores. We now provide vital feedback between park management actions and species’ responses by collecting data on a number of ecologically important species, such as spotted hyenas, lions, cheetahs, vultures and roan antelope.

Since African Parks took on the management of Liwonde in 2015, the park has experienced remarkable conservation successes – from implementing widespread anti-poaching efforts to carrying out some of the largest elephant and black rhino translocations in history. So we always knew we were going to be kept busy in our new role but could never have predicted just what the year ahead would hold!

In November 2020, our first task for the Biodiversity Monitoring Project involved an aerial survey of Liwonde’s wildlife populations. Observations covered 23 different species, with waterbuck and impala being the dominant large mammals in the park.

The project officially began in November 2020 and our Research Manager, Olivia Sievert, dove straight in by assisting on the park’s biennial aerial survey. These surveys involve hours of flying in the park helicopter using a grid system to cover the entire area. Olivia, acting as scribe, carefully recorded all 17,944 observations of mammals, select birds and crocodiles, and the totals were analysed to find trends in wildlife populations.

Throughout the year, our experienced team have informed and assisted with the collaring of one lion and eleven cheetahs. Fitting these animals with VHF collars allows us to collect baseline data on individuals’ movements, survival, and breeding – and conduct daily tracking to ensure their wellbeing. Each animal first has to be located and darted for the collar to be deployed – a high-stakes operation. Working with wild animals requires the meticulous skills of specialist vets, managers and the monitoring team, as well as hours of preparation beforehand. No matter how well we know the animal, we can never predict with 100% accuracy how the day will go and are always met with surprises. In May 2021, one particularly memorable collaring involved a cheetah who, once darted, turned out not to be the adult male we were expecting, but actually an individual completely unknown to the entire park! Considering Liwonde’s cheetah population is still small, very closely monitored, and fairly isolated, this was a huge surprise. We’re excited to uncover this mystery through genetic sampling next year.

In addition to collaring, the Biodiversity Monitoring team also informed and assisted with one national and two international cheetah translocations. Individuals were moved between Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve in the south of Malawi, Kwandwe Game Reserve in South Africa and Marromeu National Reserve in Mozambique. These movements were led by the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project (CMP), who manage the larger cheetah metapopulation across southern Africa. One of the CMP’s main aims is to facilitate cheetah range expansion and promote gene flow between isolated cheetah populations. This is important work as cheetahs only occupy roughly 9% of their historical range with only 7,000 adults left globally. This type of intervention will allow the species as a whole to remain viable and healthy so cheetahs can survive long into the future – an initiative we’re proud to play a role in.

In July 2021, we were thrilled to be part of a historic moment for the entire country –reintroducing African wild dogs to Malawi! African wild dogs are one of the continent’s most threatened large carnivores. Packs require incredibly large areas to hunt, but their range is declining rapidly as humans encroach on their habitat, causing the total number of breeding pairs to drop below 700. Through a monumental collaboration between African Parks, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, eight dogs were moved into Liwonde from South Africa and a further six into Majete Wildlife Reserve from Mozambique. Monitoring the Liwonde pack and becoming a member of the Wild Dog Advisory Group has been an invaluable learning opportunity for the LWT team. We’ve been amazed by how well the pack settled in and were even more delighted to confirm the birth of nine puppies only six weeks after the release! Continuing to follow these new additions closely will be a central priority for us going into 2022.

Our daily monitoring tasks include the use of specialised equipment, such as radio telemetry and camera trapping, but our most important tool is our eyes. By exploring all corners of the park, our team of staff and volunteers has recorded many breath-taking sightings, including groups of up to ten cheetahs at once!

Our continuous presence in the bush and thorough record-keeping means we’ve also managed to identify and report on numerous new animals who were previously unknown to the park or have recently been born. This includes four cheetahs, six hyenas, nine lions and nine African wild dogs. Since establishing the project, we’ve provided and maintained databases on almost 2,000 priority species reports, as well as created detailed identification kits and studbooks that log life histories for every large carnivore in the park. Decades of persecution led to an almost total absence of carnivores in Liwonde, and so watching these populations expand first-hand is a real testament to the extraordinary conservation efforts of African Parks.

This adult male cheetah, known as Ch29, became famous in the park when he was collared in May as his existence was previously unrecorded! He has gone on to be one of our most sighted animals, finding other cheetahs to be friends with wherever he goes.
In June 2021, LWT assisted with the movement of two male cheetahs into Liwonde from Kwandwe Game Reserve in South Africa. These males will provide vital genetic diversity to the local population.
A pack of eight African wild dogs were introduced into Liwonde in July 2021. We’ve followed them closely ever since and been delighted with their success.
We received nine pangolins this year from areas surrounding Liwonde who were rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.

We’ve developed standard operating procedures for pangolin intakes and conducted onsite assessments of nine pangolins confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade by local police stations. Some of these animals have been received in the worst conditions imaginable and providing the care they need simply wouldn’t be possible without the support of staff from Lilongwe Wildlife Centre who deliver vital veterinary advice and services. Having deployed the first satellite transmitter on a pangolin in Liwonde, we’re excited to expand monitoring efforts for released pangolins in the park next year with the use of new technology, uncovering more on the behaviour of these fascinating creatures.

We’re committed to expanding the reach of our Biodiversity Monitoring Project further within the wider scientific community. By sharing our knowledge with Malawian students, we hope to inspire and train the conservationists of the future. El Comley, our Field Research Coordinator, gave a presentation on our work to a class of Behavioural Ecology students from the University of Malawi in June 2021. Soon after, we welcomed our first Malawian volunteer, Joyce, who went on to work at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre as a Wildlife Technician!

And in November 2021, we were excited to host our first undergraduate student project – undertaken by Benford Kayuni from the University of Malawi. Benford has been a valuable additional to the team, working with us daily on monitoring tasks. His project on the dietary overlap of large carnivores in Liwonde will provide vital insights into the predator-prey dynamics in the park, as well as evaluating potential interspecific competition between the growing predator populations.

Our Biodiversity Monitoring Project accepts volunteers throughout the year. Whether you’re a budding conservationist who wants to elevate their CV or you simply want to dedicate your time to protecting wild animals, you’ll come away from your volunteer placement with a wealth of experience and unique memories.

Liwonde has welcomed nine new lion cubs this year which we identified and whose progress we continue to monitor.
Benford Kayuni from the University of Malawi joined our team in November 2021 as he completes his undergraduate degree. His research focuses on the dietary overlap of large carnivores in Liwonde.