The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is internationally known for being a safe haven to some of the most critically endangered species in the world. Due to poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and environmental change, by the end of the 1980s, almost all of Kenya’s black rhino had been killed. Presently, however, Lewa is home to 62 of these ancient creatures, more than 10% of Kenya’s black rhino population!
How did we do it? Through the vigilant monitoring and management of these species and their habitat – and a major part of that is research.
Understanding how different species interact and use their environment is the only way to ensure informed management of a protected area. Data has been collected on Lewa since the 1970s. In addition to endangered species, our research approach focuses on predator impact, range improvement and game count.
Predator Research on Lewa
Lewa is currently home to about 22 lions (Leo Panthera). Having “the king of the jungle” around presents a wonderful opportunity for visitors to catch a glimpse of this majestic beast. Unfortunately though, this abundance is taking its toll on the Grevy’s zebra, especially young foals.
Lewa’s predator research looks to determine and monitor the impact of lion and hyena predation on the endangered Grevy’s zebra (Equus Grevi) and the Plains zebra (Equus quagga, formerly Equus burchelli), also known as the Common Zebra.
- Just as every human is unique and beautiful (or so your mother told you), lion have a distinctive arrangement of spots around their whiskers, used to identify individuals
- The movements of individuals and groups of lion are tracked on a daily basis with the aid of GPS radio collars
- We examine the diet of the Conservancy predators by inspecting lion and hyena scat for hairs of the animal that has been eaten
- Preliminary results show a lot more Grevy’s than Plains zebra hair present in lion scat
- As researchers hypothesize different theories as to why this might be, we are able to see what next steps to take in order to manage the harmony of the Conservancy’s ecosystem, and protect endangered species
The Grevy’s zebra has suffered a drastic reduction in range, and lack of adequate grazing poses a major threat to their survival. With only 0.5% of their range falling within protected areas, Grevy’s zebra must compete with livestock on community land. Depending on the season, however, grass on the Conservancy can also become unsuitable for zebra consumption, thus affecting their health. Holistic management brings together the interests of local peoples and endangered species to find a solution to these challenges.
In order to improve the quality and biodiversity of the zebra’s rangelands, the Conservancy alternates between prescribed burning techniques and livestock grazing. Over 1,500 head of cattle from different communities graze on Lewa each day, and are confined to moveable holding pens at night. Having cattle graze and trample on the rank grasses helps create favourable conditions for seed germination, because of the combination of manuring, urination, and the breaking down of hard, crusty earth. Once the grass is completely grazed the pens are rotated to different areas.
The researchers’ system has proven successful. The high biomass and moribund grass on grazed blocks has gone down, and the regeneration of nutritious vegetation has attracted plains game back into the area. This programme has enhanced our relationships in the surrounding areas by increasing community incomes in cattle-related markets. The holistic management of rangelands is one of the many endeavors Lewa has employed in order to integrate community peace and prosperity with wildlife conservation.
All numbers of the animals cited here are ensured to be accurate, as of the time of writing, because since 1999, the Lewa Research Department has been keeping track of the population sizes of 25 species. The annual game count updates researchers on important trends and patterns. Knowing what conditions encourage and limit the growth of populations informs critical decision-making in wildlife management.
- Despite a downward trend after 2005, the African elephant population rose by over 16% between 2008-2009
- The giraffe population has been stable for the last three years at an average number of 245. The buffalo population has increased from 332 in 2011 to 399 in early 2012.
- The game count tells us about breeding as well as how many offspring survive into adolescence and adulthood (called recruitment)
By keeping track of the health, habits, and habitats of the species on the Conservancy, the Lewa Research & Monitoring Department has authored innovative ideas, lending support and valuable information to conservation initiatives all over Kenya.