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Makgadikgadi Zebra Migration Research 2008-2012

Makgadikgadi Zebra Migration Research 2008-2012

This research was initiated as a follow-up study to the research of Dr Chris Brooks conducted between 2001 and 2005. The research examined the foraging behaviour, spatial distribution and adaptability to environmental changes of plains zebra (Equus quagga) in the Makgadikgadi, Botswana, following the construction of an electrified fence in 2004. Seasonal changes in resource availability were documented and GPS collars were used to record detailed movement data. The ongoing population dynamics of the zebra population were recorded throughout the study and the impact of the fence on the migratory zebra population was assessed where possible.

The results of this study show that zebra are highly adaptable and have the flexibility to respond to significant environmental changes, yet they need to continue to be able to move freely within the Makgadikgadi. Initial results suggest that the Makgadikgadi fence has had a positive impact on the zebra population but further monitoring is needed to assess the long-term impacts of fencing on the Makgadikgadi ecosystem and the resident wildlife. These findings add to those of Brooks (2005) and further our understanding of the resource requirements, spatial distribution and foraging behaviour of zebra in the Makgadikgadi.

During the research period, the Makgadikgadi was subject to significant environmental variability which influenced the spatial distribution and foraging behaviour of zebra. The Makgadikgadi experienced significant unseasonal rainfall in June 2009 which had a major effect on the location of the zebra herds within the Makgadikgadi. In addition, the Boteti River started to flow again in 2009 after a 20-year hiatus, significantly changing water availability for wildlife and livestock. Finally, a large bush fire in September 2010 removed nearly all of the available forage biomass, significantly influencing movement patterns and foraging behaviour. In addition to these one-off events, the Makgadikgadi experienced above average rainfall from 2008 to 2011 which led to increased forage growth across the Makgadikgadi when compared to the pre-fence study period.

Seasonal water availability determined the spatial distribution of zebra in the Makgadikgadi while forage quality and quantity was both spatially and temporally variable. The movement patterns of zebra reflected resource availability at multiple spatial scales and showed that zebra follow an area-restricted search strategy. By adapting fine-scale foraging patterns to the quality and quantity of resources available, zebra were able to improve foraging efficiency. Zebra adopted an unselective foraging strategy at the feeding site, maximising intake rate and reducing the temporal and energetic costs of foraging during both a typical wet season and an atypical dry season. However, sites with increased forage dry matter were preferred in two of the three available habitats during the typical wet season. Pan grassland provided the highest quality forage with zebra taking advantage of fresh rains to move further into the pan grassland to forage. The mixed woodland and pan grassland habitats in CT/11 were used extensively throughout the wet season and were particularly important towards the end of the wet season as waterholes dry up.

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