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(i) Conservation significance of montane environments
Protected areas are the cornerstone of local, regional, and global strategies for biodiversity conservation, although the value and importance of natural habitats outside of formally protected areas is increasingly recognised. As human populations continue to rise and human activities convert and degrade lowland habitats, mountainous regions are increasingly important to species conservation. Mountainous areas are often noted for high concentrations of endemic species of animals and plants and thus represent an important focus for conservation research. Our project is based at the Lajuma Research Centre within the Soutpansberg Mountain Range, an area recognized nationally as a centre of endemism and biodiversity. The mountains fall within the Vhembe UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and form part of the North-Eastern Escarpment Bio-region, a priority area for conservation research highlighted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute. Our research is assessing the ecology, biodiversity status and conservation potential of this montane environment to significantly increase our understanding of the importance of mountainous regions in conservation planning.
(ii) Predator-prey interactions
Predation is a key selective force driving animal evolution. Almost all animal species are engaged in some form of predator-prey interaction and thus how animals manage the risk of predation is a central issue in behavioural ecology. Predation imposes two costs on prey individuals: the catastrophic fitness costs of mortality resulting from successful predation and the indirect costs of employing behaviours to reduce mortality risks. These non-lethal interactions between predator and prey appear to impact on almost every aspect of prey decision-making (from foraging to mate choice). Predation avoidance is widely accepted as the primary advantage for group-living in social vertebrates with individuals assumed to experience reduced per captia risk as group size increases through the benefits of dilution, confusion, early warning and coordinated defence. While theoretical models have supported such anti-predator benefits for animals living in groups, empirical evidence is more limited. Similarly, while group size variation is a ubiquitous characteristic of populations of social animals, the causes of this variation have remained a long-standing problem in behavioural ecology, particularly in species that form permanent social groups. Thus while studies of predator-prey interactions have made considerable progress in recent decades, there are still significant gaps in our understanding and substantial scope for future work. Our study aims to fill some of these gaps through focussing on the interactions between predators and their dirunal primate prey. Recent evidence suggests that to understand the impact of predation on different mammalian prey species it is necessary to account for the pressure exerted by all of the major predators as well as the interactions of individual predator-prey combinations. Our study system is perfectly suited to these requirements.
(iii) Human-wildlife conflict
Predators are an important part of every natural community and play a critical role in ecosystem functioning. Therefore, if conservation strategies are to be successful in preserving natural ecosystems, we need to explain the dynamic interactions that occur between predators and prey and how these shape animal populations. However, a second facet of mammalian conservation is to understand how animals co-exist in human-dominated landscapes. Large carnivores can place significant costs on human populations by inflicting damage that threatens local livelihoods through livestock depredation and predation on managed wildlife and hunting and retaliatory killings of carnivores in response to perceived livestock depredation are common. While predation on domestic livestock is often cited as the most common cause of human-wildlife conflict, crop damage by wild animals is also a significant issue, often causing farmers considerable economic loss and frustration, and undermining local conservation efforts . Primates are often cited as a greater problem than the major predators within the Soutpansberg Moutains. Our project aims to understand the dynamic nature of human-wildlife conflict in our study area. Through assessing actual levels of livestock predation alongside stakeholder perceptions and the viability of our predator populations under current hunting pressure alongside studies of the diurnal primate species and the factors leading to crop-raiding and human-wildlife conflict we aim to develop viable management strategies for mammalian conservation in the region.
Kent, V.T. & Hill, R.A. (in press) The importance of farmland for the conservation of brown hyaena, Parahyaena brunnea. Oryx
Willems, E.P. & Hill, R.A. (2009) Predator-specific landscapes of fear and resource distribution: effects on spatial range use. Ecology, 90: 546-555 (pdf)
Willems, E.P., Barton, R.A. & Hill, R.A. (2009) Remotely sensed productivity, home range selection and local range use by an omnivorous primate. Behavioral Ecology, 20: 985-992 (pdf)
Partners & Funding:
Russell Hill - Durham University (Project Leader) (email)