Gonarezhou Predator Project

The Chilojo Cliffs, Gonarezhou (Photo credit: Rosemary Groom)

The Gonarezhou National Park (1,930mi2) is located in southeast Zimbabwe, bordering Mozambique to the east and with its southern boundary only 50km from the South African border.

Map showing Gonarezhou National Park

The Gonarezhou Predator Project was established in 2009 acknowledging the need for information on the status of the park’s large carnivore populations. The project is a joint initiative by the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and part funded by the African Wildlife Conservation Fund.

After initial investigations into the park’s predator populations, it soon became apparent that there was cause for concern over the extremely low lion numbers in the park. In addition very little was known about any of the park’s large carnivore species (lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs and spotted hyenas).

Lion mother licking two small cubs

To address these issues, the team began carrying out annual spoor surveys to pick up on population trends of these species. Direct monitoring of certain species, collation of tourist data and ranger sightings and a comprehensive park-wide call-up survey conducted in 2012, all contributed to a better understanding of the park’s lion and spotted hyena populations. This short study affirmed concerns about the extremely low lion density: in 2010 a population of less than 50 lions was estimated to be surviving in the park, which potentially could support over 200.

Spoor survey – Gonarezhou National Park (Photo credit: Rosemary Groom)

It was soon discovered that various human-related activities were involved, including unsustainably high hunting quotas in adjacent concessions, illegal hunting for skins by some Mozambique operators, snaring, poisoning and historically high levels of lethal problem animal control (PAC). The potential severity of the trade in skins was highlighted when the only collared lion was illegally baited, shot and skinned within the confines of the park. An under-cover follow up investigation found several large predator skins (including lion and leopard) in the process of being sold and smuggled to South Africa.

Lion skin in Mozambique (Taken on a cell phone in a dark hotel room as part of an under-cover operation) (Photo credit: Elias Libombo)

Leopard – killed by a snare (Photo credit: Rosemary Groom)

Snared hyena (Photo credit: Paul Funston)

The illegal trade in skins and the snaring and poisoning of these predators also impacts on leopards and African wild dogs; the only collared wild dog in the park was killed in a snare on the Mozambique boundary less than a year after being collared and photographs from tourists have shown several other dogs suffering with snares around their necks. Several poisoned or snared leopard carcasses have also been found in the park.

In response to this anthropogenic threat, we are supporting the work of the Zimbabwean Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and their conservation partner Frankfurt Zoological Society to mitigate these threats by:

Rueben helping to collar a lion

  • Assisting with anti-poaching and snare removal
  • Empowering the authorities to deal with problem animals in non-lethal ways
  • Holding conflict mitigation workshops with neighboring communities to reduce conflict and increase tolerance
  • Improving relations between the park and its neighbors through education and outreach
  • Participating in a regional steering committee to tackle the cross-border law enforcement issue

The team will also continue to monitor the large carnivore populations to evaluate the efficacy of the conservation efforts. Already, we are noticing a significant increase in the lion population and hope that by reducing mortality rates, the population will continue to increase to more viable levels.

Rosemary working on an immobilized lion (Photo credit: Paul Funston)