Notes on the Smaller Mammals of Phinda South
Notes on the Smaller Mammals of Phinda South
Ranger, Bryan Olver was the winner of the prize for the best field project in the third edition of &Beyond's Ecological Journal published in 2001. In this edition, Bryan co-authored projects on Phinda's Cheetah and wild flowers, and here, in the third of a series highlighting field projects conducted by rangers at various &Beyond lodges across Africa, we present a shortened version of his work on the smaller mammals of Phinda during 1999 and 2000. Bryan has recently moved to Kwandwe in the Eastern Cape.
The Maputaland region is known for its diversity of life and the distinct habitats at Phinda equate to a large variety of smaller animals: birds, reptiles, frogs, invertebrates, micro and smaller mammals. Of the latter, Serval, Caracal, Aardvark, Greater Bushbaby, Large-spotted Genet, Banded Mongoose, White-tailed Mongoose, Slender Mongoose, Water Mongoose, Side-striped Jackal, Black-backed Jackal, Porcupine, Bushpig, Honey Badger, Striped Polecat, Cape Clawless Otter and Scrub Hare are known to occur on the reserve. Unlike most of the larger mammals (which were either reintroduced after suffering local extinctions or had their numbers supplemented), these are all species - with a few exceptions - that have always been in the area, living in the shadows of past human activity (hunting and farming), or have made their own way onto the reserve in recent years.
This study arose out of an attempt to understand habitat preferences and densities of these sought-after species and incorporated sightings over a 16-month period in the south of Phinda, an area of approximately 5 500 hectares covering four distinct habitats: rocky hillsides, riverine forest, marshland, and mixed bushveld savannahs.
The more common species
Aside from the regularly seen Scrub Hare, species such as Large-spotted Genet, Greater Bushbaby, White-tailed Mongoose, Banded Mongoose, Porcupine and Bushpig are most commonly seen and the number of sightings of these species allowed some seasonal and habitat preference comparisons. On average, more sightings occurred over winter, not due to any geographical or habitat movements, but rather to greater visibility during this time of year and changed activity patterns because of colder nighttime temperatures. Banded Mongoose ‘hotspots' were identified at 12 sites allowing us to estimate the presence of at least six resident troops for the study area.
Less commonly seen species
Serval are infrequently seen at Phinda where, predictably, they occur in association with the open grasslands of seeplines and marshlands. Most sightings occurred within an area of approximately 600 hectares suggesting that only one individual was sighted, but of this we are unsure. A female with cubs was regularly seen in the same area in early 2000, but has since disappeared. Caracal are similarly scarce. Five individuals have been reintroduced to the reserve with no sightings taking place since November 1999. This species is not present in the adjacent Mkuze Game Reserve and it is questionable whether it is actually indigenous to the area. Aardvark were also seen infrequently and appear to be more abundant in the north of Phinda where soils are sandier. Most sightings occur in winter.
Eight individuals of both Black-backed and Side-striped Jackals were reintroduced to Phinda in 1993 with the two species experiencing different fortunes. There appear to be only two adult Black-backed remaining. A male established a territory around Mountain Lodge in the second half of 1999 and was soon joined by a female. Mating in July 2000 yielded at least two pups which were first discovered beneath the deck of one of the Mountain Lodge rooms before the den site was moved to a nearby rock crevice. Their territory covers approximately 600 hectares with both male and female seen to feed on the remains of Lion kills and a variety of bird and insect species. The male has been seen to hunt and kill Impala lambs. Side-striped Jackals have adapted far better and are regularly seen in both the north and south of the reserve. Throughout the reserve they are found mainly in mixed bushveld and open woodland savannah. A pair has established a territory centred on the Izwelithle airstrip and has bred successfully over the last three seasons (3 pups in 1998; 4 pups in 1999).
Water Mongoose, Striped Polecat, Honey Badger and Cape Clawless Otter are all seen very infrequently in the south of Phinda. For example, the last record of a Cape Clawless Otter was in April 1996 in the Mzinene River. Similarly, Honey Badgers were not seen during this survey and were last recorded in the south of the reserve in early 1998. Like Honey Badger, Striped Polecats are seen more frequently in the north of the reserve and were also not recorded in the south of Phinda during the survey. In the study area Water Mongoose occur in the water associated savannahs and riverine woodlands around the bigger dams and rivers, and are infrequently seen.
The status of the smaller mammals on Phinda South is, for the most part, stable and satisfactory. Numbers of some species appear surprisingly low and some reintroductions have flourished while others have apparently failed. Perhaps we should content ourselves with the knowledge that as the health of the environment improves and the fences around the reserve are dropped to incorporate other conservation areas, a larger, self-balancing ecosystem will allow larger self-sustaining populations of these species. In the interim, worthy of further investigation, is the effect of proactive management actions - such as bush clearing, burning and mowing - on small mammal populations, and the impact of reintroduced larger predators on small carnivores. Also of significance would be a rodent survey across the representative habitats of the reserve giving an indication of the prey populations of smaller carnivores.
- Bryan Olver -
Posted: Mammals by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006