1 Liuwa Plain
At Liuwa Plain, MSU grad student Jassiel M’soka studies the dynamics of hyenas, and MSU grad student Angela Brennan investigates disease transmission between ungulates and cattle. Egil Dröge, soon to be an MSU doctoral student, who like Becker has been with ZCP from the beginning, is monitoring the populations of prey—wildebeest, zebra and oribi—and their responses to predators.
Every aspect of ZCP’s research in Liuwa is directed at monitoring the overall progress of an ecosystem in recovery. An epidemic of poaching spilled across the border from Angola during that country’s decades of civil war, and wildlife is still recovering under new protective management.
Similar to wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, scientists expect the area will eventually have a functional lion population—Liuwa Plain currently has three lions. The predator’s recovery will have significant ecological effects throughout the system, Becker said.
To gauge the population of Liuwa’s cheetahs, which are low in numbers and highly dispersed, Becker said ZCP teamed up with the Bozeman-based group Working Dogs for Conservation to have dogs sniff out cheetah scat so it can be genetically tested to identify individual animals.
2 Kafue National Park
With more than 3,000 square miles of intact and varied habitat, Kafue National Park and its adjacent conservation lands, is one of Africa’s largest preserved wildlife areas. It might be home to one of the continent’s most significant populations of African wild dogs, which ZCP continues to monitor.
Despite the name, wild dogs have nothing to do with domesticated dogs, but are one of the world’s oldest and most endangered carnivore species. Wigganson Matandiko and Paul Schuette’s initial data from Kafue suggests that their density in Kafue rivals that of Tanzania’s renowned Selous Game Reserve, where MSU ecology professor Scott Creel worked in the 1990s and found Africa’s largest remaining population.
In Kafue, ZCP is also conducting a population study on cheetahs and pursuing population data and distribution for park ungulates. Beginning in 2013, the Kafue team has continued the intensive lion research of the Kafue Lion Project.
3 Luangwa and mid-Zambezi
The Luangwa and mid-Zambezi ecosystems, a mostly intact wilderness the size of South Carolina, hold Zambia’s largest population of lions, as well as significant populations of leopards and wild dogs.
Here ZCP has studied wild dogs and lions intensively. MSU graduate student Eli Rosenblatt is using motion-sensitive cameras to monitor the number of leopards and restrictions on their habitat. He and Creel recently published a new method to use genetic information to determine population sizes, and Rosenblatt is collecting samples from lions to test the new idea.
“Large carnivores are notoriously difficult to count—it can take years of field work just to estimate the size of a lion population,” Rosenblatt said. “Genetic data have the potential to make this process much faster and more accurate.”
Thandiwe Mweetwa, a ZCP scientist who hails from the valley, is doing her master’s research with MSU graduate David Christianson at the University of Arizona on factors that limit reproduction and cub survival of a large population of individually identifiable lions.