Mission of the Drylands Conservation Programme

The Drylands Conservation Programme,is part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and aims: to maintain ecosystem conditions in the drylands that can support biodiversity, including threatened species such as the Riverine Rabbit, whilst simultaneously ensuring socio-economic benefits to landowners and communities.

Vol. 8 August 2014

 
 
 

What’s happening along the N12?
Bonnie Schumann

Travellers travelling between Victoria West and Three Sisters in the Nama Karoo were astonished to see dust flying as tractor, plough and several men with picks set about kick-starting the restoration of a 2km section of degraded riparian veld east of the N12. The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Drylands Conservation Programme (EWT-DCP), under the banner of their Riparian Ecosystem Restoration Project, is working hand in hand with Herman Hugo, Chairman of the Wagenaarskraal Riverine Rabbit Conservancy to restore this section of the farm Maanhaarspoort.

What makes this section of degraded veld significant is that it is situated between two known populations of the Critically Endangered Riverine Rabbit. The aim here is to restore the ecological and agricultural integrity of this habitat. The first step, which literally sent dust flying, was to loosen the compacted barren earth by ploughing it. These ploughed furrows, patterned to regulate water-flow over the area, also serve as water and seed traps, and areas where organic material can accumulate, while the soft soil on the banks of the furrows provides areas where seeds can germinate more easily. In order to speed up the process of vegetation recovery, species of bossies occurring in the riparian areas were propagated at the EWT’s Indigenous Karoo Nursery in Loxton for planting at the site. Altogether 3688 bossies, comprising 11 species, were planted in the furrows by a restoration team consisting of community members from Loxton.

The EWT Drylands programme takes a research-based action approach to addressing degradation in riparian areas. Work here and at other project sites is underway to determine the survival rates of the propagated bossies and the rates of recovery. To provide some protection from the wind, sun and compacting effect of large rain drops, brush was harvested from poplar trees growing nearby and packed along the furrows. The leaves from the trees collect in the furrows and around the bossies, providing temporary ground cover and organic matter. The brush will also provide some protection from livestock at a later stage once the section has established enough to sustain careful utilisation. Watch this space for future developments on our project.

 
 

Measuring to manage: Ensuring sustainable water in our rivers to support their unique biodiversity and agricultural water requirements
Alwyn Lubbe

How much water do we actually have in our rivers? This is the critical point of departure if we are to effectively manage our water resources to the benefit of people and the environment. The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cape Critical Rivers project is striving to answer this question in the Kouebokkeveld, the hub of the fruit farming industry in the water-stressed Western Cape Province, South Africa. The CCR team recently went with hydraulics engineer Martin Kleynhans and the Department of Water Affairs, to undertake topographical surveys of selected rivers. These were identified as National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas; and the surveys will provide us with the baseline data for accurately calculating the volume and timing of flows in these rivers throughout the year. The surveys effectively mapped cross-sections of the rivers from the “water’s point of view”. This allows us to digitally model how water would move through the channel, from the smallest trickle during the dry season, to the raging torrents that sweep through these systems during the stormy Cape winters. This information is critical for developing a better understanding of the current state of these rivers and their capacity to provide sufficient water to maintain ecosystem function and support the array of species which are dependent on this system, as well as provide water for agricultural and basic human needs. This will be the first time that accurate flow information will be available for these important rivers, and the successful completion of the river surveys was an important accomplishment for this project.

 
 

Conserving the Critically Endangered Barrydale Redfin; a delicate balancing act
Alwyn Lubbe

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cape Critical Rivers team and our project partners CapeNature are working on an ambitious project to secure adequate water availability for fish and folks. The Critically Endangered Barrydale Redfin, as well as the town of Barrydale relies heavily on the Huis River. This is a classic example of the fragile balance between human needs and the environment. Recently our team completed our annual fish survey of the Huis and surrounding rivers, to monitor the current state of this critically important redfin population. We also collected hydrological data for the Huis River, which will allow us to eventually provide the Barrydale authorities with accurate information on the quantities of water currently remaining in the river, compared to the water requirements to sustain ecosystem function. To our great pleasure we recorded relatively high numbers of redfins, demonstrating the resilience of this species, even under stressful conditions. The local nature conservation authorities have already participated in an alien vegetation clearing project in the Huis River, which will significantly increase the river flows in the system and go a long way towards improving habitat quality for the Barrydale Redfin. We will continue to work closely with the authorities and the municipality to find win-win solutions to balance the town’s water requirements with those of the natural ecosystem, and are particularly investigating the feasibility of diverting a portion of the water currently abstracted for town use back into the river, a decision which will be informed by our hydrological study.
For a beautifully compiled short documentary on the plight of the redfins of the Cape Floristic region, have a look at this video; https://vimeo.com/82198787

 
 
 

Riverine Rabbit Conservancies highlighted as Film crews double up in Loxton
Bonnie Schumann

Loxton was inundated by two film crews for a week in March. The first crew were preoccupied with filming a local movie – locals were in a buzz, but “top secret” was the modus operandi on this one. The second film crew from Lemur Productions practically rode in on a wave of mud after being rained out in Sutherland and slip-sliding all the way to Loxton on the Fraserburg road in order to capture the work being done in the Conservancies here.

Lemur Productions came to Loxton in search of Critically Endangered Riverine Rabbits and the people working to conserve them – the theme of their filming being South Africa’s Agriculture and Biodiversity. Loxton is the home of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Drylands Conservation Programme (EWT-DCP), which has been working with conservancy members for over a decade to conserve the iconic Riverine Rabbit and its unique riverine habitat in the Nama Karoo. Staff took the film crew to one of the rabbit “hot spots” on Johan Moolman’s farm, Dunedin, for a night drive. Johan is the chairperson of the Sak River Conservancy, established by farmers to coordinate conservation of biodiversity on farmland, with the focus being on Riverine Rabbits. Unfortunately the Rabbits lived up to their reputation of being elusive and stubbornly refused to show themselves – maybe the icy night temperature had something to do with their reluctance to be out and about?

Next up was Dries Wiese, who kept the crew captivated for over three hours talking about agriculture and biodiversity. People who know Dries were not surprised by the length of the interview as biodiversity is a subject close to Dries’s heart, but by the fact that the entire interview was conducted in English! Then the EWT-DCP staff took the crew to visit Martin Scholtz on Sakrivierspoort. By his own admission he farms with sheep, not rabbits, but Martin is one of the staunchest conservation farmers in the area, and also one of the first members of the Sak River Conservancy. The EWT-DCP has been working with Martin on restoring a degraded section of Riverine Rabbit habitat on Sakrivierspoort. A quick stop at the EWT-DCP’s Indigenous Karoo Plant Nursery in Loxton, and the film crew was on their way. The filming will be aired as a 13-part documentary on agriculture and biodiversity on SABC 3, highlighting the topic in the various biomes found in South Africa, such as our own Nama Karoo, the grasslands and the Succulent Karoo.
 
 

Busy bunnies
Rona van der Merwe

“This has to be a very good omen”, was my thought after seeing a Riverine Rabbit for the very first time. It took me a while to settle down before I could recollect what exactly had just happened. I’ve been spending the past two days in the veld, getting to know my study site and looking for suitable points at which to set up camera traps. It is midday; the Karoo sun is showing no mercy. I see something brown moving between the grootdoringkapokbos right in front of me. My eyes squint and out hops what is unmistakably a Riverine Rabbit. In my dreams he stopped, turned around and graced me with a thank-you smile. I returned an oh–so-thankful smile, for he (or may it have been a she?) had just boosted me with the confidence I so needed. This was my first encounter with the animal which I am hoping to get to know and understand a little bit better towards the end of this year.

We set up 30 camera traps, each attached to an iron pole and placed in a thoughtfully selected area. The aim is to capture as many photos as possible of the elusive Riverine Rabbit in order to increase our understanding of its ecological behaviour. Hopefully by the end of this study we will know more about the time of day when rabbits are most active and how this may vary between seasons and other selected environmental parameters. This insight may help us to optimize conservation strategies and also give us a better understanding in the Riverine Rabbit’s ability to adapt under changing environmental conditions.

After just two days of testing the cameras in the veld we were lucky enough to “capture” no less than six photos of Riverine Rabbits. I had to work through hundreds of dud photos as the cameras are set on a high sensitivity level and easily triggered by twigs waving in the slightest breeze. Sheep also seem to believe that they are very photogenic, together with the occasional porcupine, meerkat and mongoose making an appearance. After readjusting some of the cameras, they were ready and set for another two weeks.

I have been extremely fortunate to work with a group of dedicated Endangered Wildlife Trust staff from the EWT-Drylands Conservation Programme who have directed and helped me tremendously, also providing me with the donated cameras. It is also a pleasure to witness how landowners willingly embrace the species’ conservation by allowing strangers (such as myself) to do research on their farms. I am extremely positive about the current Riverine Rabbit projects and believe that this beautiful bunny has a bright future ahead.

 
 

JJ Booysen Primary School Visits Karoo Indigenous Plant Nursery
Janice Essex

The first time I was involved with the learners of JJ Booysen Primary School in Loxton was on very short notice from one of the school teachers, asking if they could visit the nursery in a few hours. Wow, were the children excited to be part of the programme planned at the nursery for them! I was touched by their enthusiasm. During the introduction we talked to them about what work we do as a Programme in Loxton.

We (Hester de Wee, Johnny Arends and I) showed them the different parts of a plant. We were amazed by how much the learners knew especially the kids living on farms; they explained to us how they use plants for medicinal purposes and could even name a few Karoo bossies off by heart. We had a session where we divided the learners in groups giving them a cutting of different Karoo bossies for them to look at, feel and smell to be able to identify it with clues we gave them. The groups each got bags with different seeds and were tasked to match the seeds with the right bossies. We also discussed how seeds are adapted for dispersal – showing them winged, woolly and spiky seeds.

We wrapped up the morning with a Riverine Rabbit hunt along the bossie trail. The children were so thrilled by the plants on the trail, especially the ones in flower that they almost forgot about the Riverine Rabbit! They left singing, dancing and playing, it was indeed a very eventful and educational morning.

 
 

Oorlogskloof reveals its mussels
Bonnie Schumann, Mandy Schumann, Christy Bragg and Martine Jordaan

The Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve is not only famous for its exceptionally rare Clivia’s, but is also home to the Critically Endangered Sandfish. However, what recently generated a huge amount of media interest and got conservationists in a flap was the discovery of a few rather non-descript looking mussels – largely thanks to a hungry otter.

Team members from the Cape Critical Rivers Project, a partnership between the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the Department of Environment and Nature Conservation (DENC), CapeNature and the Freshwater Research Centre (FRC), were surveying the Endangered Clanwilliam Sandfish populations in the Northern Cape’s Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve when the mussel discovery was made. Bonnie explains, “We had seen mussel shells in the Oorlogs before, but what made me stop counting fish and go off digging for mussels was when I happened to look down and there alongside me were the remains of a recent otter meal in the form of an opened mussel with bits of stringy meat on it -sure proof there were mussels in that pool!”

This is the first official record of the fresh water mussel Unio caffer in the Reserve and only the second official recording of live mussels in the entire Northern Cape Province.

These mussels have shown a sharp decline in numbers and distribution in recent years, highlighting the conservation importance of the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve as a sanctuary, not only for endangered fish species and Bokkeveld Sandstone Fynbos, but also for freshwater mussels. Across the rest of the mussel’s range pollution, siltation, water abstraction and a decline in water quality are all thought to be contributing to the decline of this species. Fresh water mussels are considered to be an indicator of the condition of the fresh water systems they inhabit as they are sensitive to negative changes in these systems.

Initial identification of the species was done by Dr Helen James from Rhodes University and Professor Corrie Wolmarans from North West University. Dr Ruhan Slabbert from the Stellenbosch University confirmed the identification of the species by DNA sequencing. Voucher specimens of the mussels have been lodged in the National Freshwater Snail Collection and in the Albany Museum collection where they will be available for future research. Please report any mussel sightings in the Northern Cape to the DENC Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve office Tel: 027 2181159, or bokkeveld@gmail.com

 
 

Annual Oorlogskloof Fish Survey
Bonnie Schumann

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cape Critical Rivers Project partners completed the annual survey of Endangered Clanwilliam Sandfish in the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve and along the upper reaches of the Kobee River in March this year. All the fish species in the system are surveyed over the course of five days. The Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve is situated on the Bokkeveld Plateau, which is world-renowned for its bulb plant diversity, but few people know the Reserve is also home to the last remaining viable population of the Endangered Clanwilliam Sandfish (Labeo seeberi).

Fish populations have been monitored in this river system for several years, which was pristine until three years ago, when banded tilapia was recorded in the system for the first time. The tilapia invaded the river via the Nieuwoudtville municipal dam. It is not known who introduced them illegally into the town’s municipal dam. Their presence is a blow to fish conservation. Alien species cause havoc in rivers in South Africa and elsewhere either as a result of their insatiable appetites for indigenous fish, or altering water quality by churning up the mud.

“Great things can be achieved when partnerships are formed”, says Mandy Schumann, stewardship coordinator with the Partnerships Section of DENC. This unique collaboration between the DENC, CapeNature and the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Drylands Conservation- and Source to Sea Programmes spawned the Cape Critical Rivers Project in 2013. The project is funded by the IUCN’s Save Our Species (SOS) Fund and aims to identify the threats to the Cape floristic regions freshwater ecosystems and species they contain, and find ways, together with other stakeholders such as the water-users along the systems to address these threats.

Staff and volunteers carry all the equipment, including nets, buckets and food down precariously steep slopes into the gorge, and then hike from pool to pool through thorny scrub and over rocks and boulders. They then swim the net through the pools; the catch is carefully counted and measured and any irregularities such as parasites on the fish noted. This year’s results are reassuring. Numbers of juvenile sandfish and sawfin remain high – a sure sign that the populations are still reproducing and recruiting into the system – a sure sign that conservationists are on the right track.

 
   

Anyone seen live mussels in the Nama Karoo?

During our work with the Riverine Rabbit Project we frequently see old mussel shells along the Sak River (see photo), but have never found live ones, or signs of them. We would like to appeal to farmers along seasonal rivers in the Nama Karoo, particularly along the Sak-, Brak and Krom Rivers in the Loxton areas to report any sightings of live mussels to the EWT-Drylands Conservation Programme, or to our DENC and CapeNature partners – see contact details below. We are keen to continue assimilating biodiversity data for the Nama-Karoo, as the area has been so understudied and poorly researched in the past.

 
 

The Endangered Wildlife Trust moves to Muizenberg – volunteer opportunity
Christy Bragg

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), one of South Africa’s oldest and most respected conservation organisations now has beautiful new offices at the Capricorn Business Park in Muizenberg. The EWT has a 40-year history of conservation in action, with a variety of award-winning programmes protecting and preserving southern Africa’s threatened species and wild places.

EWT’s Christy Bragg, a born-and-bred Southern Suburbs-citizen, is heading up the new offices – perched amongst the spur fowl and pelicans. She is currently managing several Cape-based projects, including the Riverine Rabbit Project and the Cape Critical Rivers project, saving indigenous freshwater fish.
Her programmes involve working with communities, restoring riverine ecosystems, partnering with farmers, government and businesses, to save threatened species, including the icon of the Karoo – the Critically Endangered Riverine Rabbit. The Cape Critical Rivers project is protecting critically important fresh water ecosystems in the Cape Floristic Region.

Christy is now appealing to Southern Suburbanites to help the Endangered Wildlife Trust with their critical conservation work. She is looking for a volunteer, specifically a part-time administration assistant to join the team at the new EWT offices. “We are looking for a volunteer with a little bit of sparkle, some administrative experience, a willingness to learn and grow with the programme, and a deep love for nature. Hours are flexible – donate your time and help us save species”.

Please contact Christy Bragg at christyb@ewt.org.za if you would like to join the team as a volunteer.

 

And the winner is…

Congratulations to Marike le Roux , winner of our Rabbit Runner Logo competition. Marike will receive a great hamper of delicious Lindt products. We thank Marike for her great logo and Lindt for their ongoing support for the project. This Easter Lindt once again helped save the rabbit with some fantastic funding as well as awareness-raising.


Upcoming events

Christy, as Chair of the Arid Zone Ecology Forum, encourages all to attend the upcoming exciting fusion forum in Rhodes this year. The Arid Zone Ecology Forum is having a cross-cutting collaborative forum with the Thicket Forum from 8-11 September in Grahamstown. Please see the AZEF website for more details. www.azef.co.za

Don’t forget to diarise the Williston Winter Festival 4-6 September. The festival will highlight Riverine Rabbit Conservation during a fun Riverine Rabbit Treasure Hunt on the 5th – come and join in the fun.

Special Thanks
The EWT-DCP team would like to thank Steve Moseley for volunteering time and excellent photos in the field; Steven Symms for assisting at the nursery to re-install taps; The Karoo Vleisboere Koöperatief in Loxton, in particular Hettie Maritz for the invaluable loan of their trailer; Karoo farmers Herman Hugo, Martin Scholtz, Johan Moolman, Michal Moolman, Pottie Potgieter and John Molteno for their support of the rehabilitation and camera trap projects.

Have you seen a rabbit?
Farmers and members of the public are encouraged to report Riverine Rabbit sightings to the EWT-DCP. We are still establishing where rabbits occur in the Western Cape - your sighting could be a first!

The EWT-Drylands Conservation Programme is supported by:
The Altron Group, Mazda Wildlife Fund, Rand Merchant Bank, National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Table Mountain Fund, Lindt Chocolatiers, Koos and Rona Rupert Opvoedkundige Trust, Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), Sean Williams Living Creatures Trust, Save Our Species, Elizabeth Wakeman Henderson Charitable Foundation, Zoo Berlin, the Dreyer family, Robert Rauch, Spur, and many individuals, farmers and partners.

Contact Information

Christy Bragg (Programme Manager)
Tel: 021 7885661 or 082 332 4557
christyb@ewt.org.za

Bonnie Schumann (Senior Field Officer)
Tel: 053 3813068 or 072 122 4232
bonnies@ewt.org.za

Alwyn Lubbe (Field Officer)
Tel: 021 7885661 or 084 678 6712
alwynl@ewt.org.za

www.ewt.org.za

For fresh water mussels sightings in the Western Cape
Dr. Martine Jordaan, CapeNature
Tel: 021 8668011
mjordaan@capenature.co.za

 

Head Office: Endangered Wildlife Trust, Private Bag X11, Modderfontein, Gauteng, 1645 (T) +27 11 3723600 (F) +27 11 6084682

Karoo Regional Office, Loxton: (tel/fax) 053 381 3068; Postal address:  P. O. Box 172, LOXTON, 6985, South Africa