To Stellenbosch University (SU) elephant expert Dr Katharina von Dürckheim, being in the bush is her “true north”. She has pursued this passion as a wildlife scientist, wildlife editor and in working for NGOs.
Through postgraduate research she has delved into elephants’ sense of smell, and into finding ways to solve the conflict between people and these African giants. As leader of the new Wildlife Free to Roam (WFR) research programme, she now focuses her efforts to help create connectivity corridors that allow wildlife to roam more easily between many of Southern Africa’s protected areas within large transboundary conservation areas.
WFR is based in the SU Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology in the SU Faculty of AgriSciences and is supported by the Peace Parks Foundation. Von Dürckheim is currently recruiting students to her research team and dealing with the logistics of setting up a base in some of the wilder parts of Southern Africa. Her team will be working in the Greater Limpopo (GL) and Kavango Zambezi (KAZA) transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs).
“The next important step is to create opportunities to connect these parks with each other. We must identify functional corridors and state forest reserves that will allow wide ranging species, such as the African elephant, routes to move along,” says Von Dürckheim.
“However, spatial bottlenecks are occurring. Some say that within three years, many of these corridors will be functionally extinct, with the expansion of rural settlements. There’s a certain human density across which elephants and lions will not move. It leads to populations becoming isolated, and inbreeding happens. Connectivity is therefore important, and to look for corridors and pathways that allow wide-ranging species like elephant, lion and wild dog to roam.”
The team will also study how specific species use these as corridors. The work will be done in conjunction with stakeholders and local communities.