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Events | June 2015May 20, 2015
Spotted Hyena Dynamics in the Zambezi Region of Namibia
Kwando Carnivore Project
By Lise Hanssen
Conflicts between humans and wildlife, particularly in areas where the numbers of each species are high, are difficult to avoid and manage. When human lives and livelihoods are threatened, quick decisions to alleviate conflict are sometimes taken at the expense of research and the chance to gather information that would help to make better-informed choices.
In 2010, there was no baseline information on any of the large carnivore species in the Caprivi, as it was then known. Spotted hyenas were thought to exist in their thousands causing major human wildlife conflict, and as a result were being trophy hunted as a means to appease the community. Each conservancy in the region had one hyena as part of their annual trophy hunting quota; however, there was no information on which to base these quotas.
With funding from Nedbank’s Go Green Fund, the Caprivi Carnivore Project (now known as the Kwando Carnivore Project) began its work to establish a population estimate and determine distribution, clan size and structure as well as home range, prey species and trans-boundary movements for hyenas living in this region. The project also focused on conservation issues such as trophy hunting and examining causes for human wildlife conflict and their mitigation.
Unique conservation area
Bwabwata National Park (BNP) is a new breed of park that supports a large wildlife population and a large human population. Divided into core conservation areas and areas of multiple use, the park is co-managed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), the resident community and conservancies, which is key to long-term conservation initiatives. However, given the close proximity of people and their livestock to wildlife, conflict is also part of the equation.
Park residents struggle with crop raiding elephants and predators killing their livestock. To provide a system whereby resource utilisation within the park could benefit the immediate community, park residents established a residents’ association called the Kyaramacan Association (KA).
Wildlife trends within BNP are rigorously monitored by annual transect counts within the core areas during the dry season, as well as direct observations of animals and their spoor throughout the year. Monitoring data plus reports of incidents of problem-causing animals are now used to set sustainable annual hunting quotas.
Two hunting concessions were established within BNP, from which the community could benefit financially through work opportunities, trophy fees and meat distribution. By placing some of the problem causing animals on the quota, trophy fees could also play a role in wildlife-related damage reimbursement.
Three spotted hyenas, which were to be sourced from clans living outside the core areas of the park, were put on the hunting quota for the BNP concessions in 2011.
In the field
Field activities as part of the Go Green funded project included setting up bait sites, tracking, capture, handling of immobilised hyenas, and monitoring. Training of community members in field techniques also took place during this time. The tracking skills of the community contributed greatly to the spoor-based data obtained. All pans, tracks, dirt roads and the old Golden Highway, the remnants of which still transect the west Zambezi, were covered by vehicle and on foot, looking for the presence of hyenas through spoor and latrine observation.
Prey species were identified by recognizable components, such as fragments of tortoise shell or by hair colour found in hyena scat, while food items were also identified through observation of feeding hyenas.
Spotted hyena distribution, clans, density and population estimate for BNP
Spotted hyenas occupy areas in which there are high numbers of ungulate prey and fresh water is available. The study found that in BNP, hyena clans are restricted to the core conservation areas, adjacent to the perennial river systems. There are no permanently established clans within the multiple use area, which includes the two trophy hunting concessions.
This is probably due to lack of permanent water in the late dry season resulting in the majority of wildlife congregating along the perennial rivers on the east and west boundaries. Although some wildlife species like kudu and steenbok occur in the multiple-use area even when there is no surface water, it is unlikely that their numbers are sufficient to sustain the energy requirement of an entire clan of spotted hyenas.
In addition, spotted hyenas breed throughout the year and are limited in their movements by the lack of mobility of their young. Hyena dens are located close to permanent water systems; therefore lack of permanent water limits the possibility of spotted hyena clans becoming established in the interior of BNP.
BNP contains one full clan and three partial clans of spotted hyenas whose home ranges overlap with the international borders. All spotted hyenas in BNP are dependent on trans-boundary movement to Botswana and/or Angola for resources.
The population estimate for BNP, based on density within the core areas, which range between 0.6 and 1.5 hyenas per 100 km², is 15 to 25 spotted hyenas.
Human-wildlife conflict mitigation in BNP
In many instances predation of livestock by hyenas and other predators may occur simply because there is nothing to prevent it. Despite the lack of herding, guarding of small stock and donkeys, and kraaling of livestock at night in BNP, small stock spend most of their time within the vicinity of human settlements. Hyenas seem to avoid villages.
While spotted hyenas do not target livestock, encounters between hyenas and livestock straying out of sight and sound of people, do result in livestock depredation in the west Zambezi. Vigilance by the community needs to be directed towards animals straying far from human activity, particularly in areas close to the Kwando core area where spotted hyena density is much higher.
Due to their scavenging nature, hyenas could be blamed for livestock kills made by other predators. Livestock deaths due to domestic dogs are not recorded during wildlife monitoring, but this phenomenon is highly likely, as domestic dogs form packs and roam far from human habitation within the BNP.
Spotted hyena conservation in BNP
Although spotted hyenas are perceived to be the most abundant large carnivore in BNP, they are the least observed. Classified as threatened species, spotted hyenas may number less than wild dogs in the west Zambezi. Gaps in knowledge, poor species management, indiscriminate killing and constraints on conservation measures are listed as problems in the Hyena Conservation and Action Plan (IUCN).
Spotted hyena population dynamics and strict dominance hierarchy along with complex intraspecific relationships makes them a poor candidate for trophy hunting. It is these factors rather than hyena population numbers that contribute to the lack of sustainability of this practice. The destruction of key clan members could well mean the permanent destruction of the entire clan. Their reproduction is so slow that they struggle to recover their numbers even under natural conditions. One clan observed by researchers increased in size by only two members over a period of three years.
Prey availability and distribution of permanent water are the limiting factors for spotted hyenas in BNP. If it were not for the trans-boundary movement across the international borders of Angola and Botswana, the BNP hyena population could not persist.
Trophy hunting in the BNP
Trophy hunting of spotted hyenas is unsustainable throughout the Zambezi and Kavango regions. It is particularly destructive within BNP where clans are small and density is exceptionally low throughout the majority of the park.
Occasional incidences of human-wildlife conflict do not justify the hunting of this species inside a protected area, particularly when conflict can be minimised by increased vigilance of livestock by the community.
Financial benefits to the community through trophy hunting of this species are minimal and unsustainable, and would be short-lived. Given the average trophy fee for spotted hyenas, the maximum benefits to the community for trophy hunting would be US$1,500 per annum. Additional benefits such as bed night levies from lodges, length of safari, etc. are not factored in, as it is assumed that spotted hyenas are not the main attraction for hunting clients.
Community support for hyena conservation
In November 2011, a letter from the Kyaramacan Association management committee was sent to the MET requesting that spotted hyenas be removed from the hunting quota for BNP. This was a positive step for spotted hyena conservation in the Zambezi Region. The results of this study support the recommendation for the permanent removal of spotted hyenas from the hunting quota for BNP as this practice has minimal community benefit and is destructive to the conservation of this keystone predator.
As of June 2014, spotted hyenas have been removed from the hunting quota for most of the Zambezi Region and the national quota has been reduced by half. The estimate for the hyena population in the Zambezi Region is approximately 100 individuals (range 80 – 120).
The Kwando Carnivore Project continues its research on hyena distribution, connectivity with other countries and the issues surrounding human-wildlife conflict. If we are to continue to share the stunning mosaic of rivers and parks in Namibia’s Zambezi Region with spotted hyenas, this research and the knowledge and tolerance it encourages are vital.
– The spotted hyena, also known as the laughing hyena, is native to sub-Saharan Africa
– Life span: up to 20 years in the wild
– Gestation: 4 months
– Number of young at birth: 2
– Age of maturity: 3 years
– Weight: 45 to 80kg
– Weight at birth: 1.4 kg
– Hyena cubs are dependent on their mother’s milk for over a year
– Hyena milk has the highest protein content of all terrestrial mammals
– Hyenas can eat one-third of their body weight at one meal
– Spotted hyenas can digest things that most other animals cannot, like skin and bone. Special acids in their stomach break down these items
– Hyena fossils have been found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa; but for the last 8,000 years, the spotted hyena has lived only in Africa
Lise Hanssen has been involved with large carnivore conservation and human wildlife conflict in Namibia for over twenty years. Having spent over ten years working on conflict mitigation surrounding both cheetahs and leopards, she carried out the first research on leopard density and demography on Namibian farmlands in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). Thereafter she partnered with MET in the western part of Etosha National Park and adjacent communal farmlands to conduct research on leopards and lions. In 2008 she started work on spotted hyenas in the Zambezi Region and is currently focussing on the monitoring of all large carnivore species and the mitigation of carnivore and farmer conflict throughout the Zambezi Region, including protected areas, in collaboration with MET and conservancies.