Wild Cam: Tracking the rewilding of a Malawi park

Wildlife managers with the U.S. Forest Service are partnering with international colleagues in Malawi to track the revitalization of wildlife decimated by poaching.

But a nongovernmental organization based in South Africa called African Parks, which partners with cash-strapped governments to take over management of protected areas in 10 countries, began to manage Nkhotakota and other reserves in Malawi. Forest Service officials used funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and came in several years after rewilding work had begun to track the progress.

They have been tracking wildlife using remote camera traps set out around the park. For our latest Wild Cam feature, we’ve gathered a few of these shots, along with an explanation of the trends and discoveries they detail.

©USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

One of the main reasons for the depletion of large wildlife in Nkhotakota was poaching, which reduced the population of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) from an estimated 1,500 animals in the 1990s to fewer than 100 by 2015. African Parks has since reintroduced about 500 elephants to the reserve, as part of a goal to convert the area into an elephant sanctuary.

The Forest Service has been tracking these elephants and other species. “They’re primarily interested in the translocated animals — the elephants and a whole host of about a dozen other species,” said Damon Lesmeister, a U.S. Forest Service research wildlife biologist stationed in Corvallis, Oregon, who worked on the program.

Aside from the wildlife goals, Kerkering also said that the park is providing jobs to local people and will eventually bring in money through tourism.

“There’s tremendous potential to turn this into a draw,” he said. “The elephant reintroduction was certainly a huge hit.”

©USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

African Parks didn’t focus only on elephants. They also brought in sable (Hippotragus niger), such as the one pictured, eland (Taurotragus oryx), warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus), buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and other animals.

“Most of the wildlife there had been entirely extirpated,” Kerkering said.

©USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

Lesmeister said that the Forest Service worked with African Parks for a study design with about 210 permanent camera trap locations, which are the best way to track wildlife in the reserve due to the dense vegetation that covers much of the area. The project is still in its preliminary stages, but they already have some “exciting results,” including shots of yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus) like this mother and baby, Lesmeister said.

Other animals in the area include the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis), which in Malawi is restricted to just a few mountain top patches in the reserve.

©USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

“To be able to capture photos of these blue monkeys was pretty exciting. It just demonstrates the possibility of camera traps to capture even some of these species that are quite rare,” Lesmeister said. “There are several species that are restricted just to this one little mountaintop.”

©USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

The wildlife managers were recently excited when they found a roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus) in the park. The antelope, which resembles a kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), was believed to have been extirpated from the area. Roan antelope populations have declined and are now absent from many parts of their former range due to habitat loss and poaching, so finding an individual like this was good news, Lesmiester said. He said that African Parks wants to get the reserve as close to functioning ecosystem as possible.

©USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

While African Parks has also reintroduced impalas (Aepyceros melampus) to bolster an ungulate population as close to natural numbers as possible in Nkhotakota, the animals that prey on them were almost entirely wiped out in past years. Some of the animals they have reintroduced appear to be doing well in terms of population, according to preliminary tracking, but the goal is to eventually bring back animals like lions (Panthera leo) and other carnivores.

“Their long-term vision is to reintroduce large predators into this landscape,” Lesmeister said, adding that they would like to have “dynamic predator-prey interactions” in the area.

This photo essay is part of an occasional series from The Wildlife Society featuring photos and video images of wildlife taken with camera traps and other equipment. Check out other entries in the series here. If you’re working on an interesting camera trap research project or one that has a series of good photos you’d like to share, email Joshua at jlearn@wildlife.org.

The U.S. Forest Service is a Premier Partner of The Wildlife Society.

Header Image: U.S. Forest Service officials are partnering with the nongovernmental organization African Parks to track the revitalization of wildlife, like this waterbuck in a wildlife reserve in Malawi.
©USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station