Conservation catchups from the Karoo

April 2021

Esther Matthew, EWT Drylands Conservation Programme, Senior Field Officer, estherm@ewt.org.za

Thursday 15 April was another scorching Karoo day in Loxton, supposedly 30 degrees but felt closer to 40! It is a testament to the breathtaking landscape and biodiversity, and how much I love my job, that I live and work here even though I’m not a fan of hot weather (no pun intended)! After waking,  getting up and ready, I sneaked  Jessie the Border Collie a treat to make up for leaving her out of this field trip and walked to the EWT office for a cup of delicious Outliers coffee and to confirm the plans for the day. The Drylands Conservation Programme staff are excited about one of our latest Riverine Rabbit monitoring projects – a partnership with the University of Pretoria using eDNA to detect the presence of Riverine Rabbits and other mammals in the environments they live in. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is a method that tests for the presence of DNA of an organism in the environment, and we are going to use this method to check for Riverine Rabbit presence by testing samples of soil! This project follows initial research we conducted, in collaboration with the Global Wildlife Conservation, using this method to detect DNA from Golden Mole species. Expanding the scope to other mammals such as Riverine Rabbits has been made possible through funding from Rand Merchant Bank. If the quality of the collected eDNA is good we may be able to also perform further genetic investigations which will allow us to compare Riverine Rabbits from different populations.

Two of our volunteers accompanied me on our first sampling mission for the project, targetting a farm near Loxton where we have confirmed Riverine Rabbit presence. We needed to collect soil samples from locations within the farm where we have recently recorded rabbit sightings to provide a reference sample of soil containing the DNA to use when testing samples from sites where their presence has not yet been confirmed.

In preparation for this mission, we had already put up six camera traps throughout the farm a month in advance and needed to check the cameras to see if, where, and when the elusive rabbits had been active. We walked seven very hot kilometres to visit all the sites…while trying to shake a large group of flies that had decided to tag along! We checked all the camera traps and collected soil samples from those sites in which rabbits had been caught on camera. We also collected a few samples from sites where the conditions were favourable for rabbits, and they were likely to occur but haven’t been recorded yet. While we were there, we saw a beautiful Kudu bull and not one but TWO Riverine Rabbits! If you’ve ever gone looking for these creatures, you will know that they are extremely rare and tricky to find, even in an area with previous confirmed sightings and, astonishingly, we were lucky enough to see two! It was one of the volunteers, Gail Thomson’s first sighting of the species, and with the second one, she was camera ready and managed to capture these photos of the second rabbit running through the dry riverbed.

All in all, a very successful and fulfilling day out for these EWTeam members! Stay tuned for more Conservation Catchups from the Karoo!

2021 © Endangered Wildlife Trust with help from the Artifact Team