Surveying crocodiles in the Ndumu Game Reserve

Oct 4, 2009

Mission: Surveying crocodiles in the Ndumu Game Reserve
Date: 2 –  4 October 2009
Requesting organisation: School of Biological & Conservation Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus
Location: Ndumu Game Reserve
Pilot: Paul Dutton

The pilot’s story of the mission: Surveying crocodiles in the Ndumu Game Reserve 2nd – 4th October 2009 by Paul Dutton

Spirit of the Wilderness departed from its base at Ballito Microlight airfield at 08h00 local with a cloud ceiling of 800ft and a gentle north easterly wind of about 8-10 knots. Weather reports from the Durban Met office were sketchy; this we discovered abeam of Richard’s Bay with driving rain necessitating resorting IFR, or “I follow roads”.  I must add that it was a calculated risk to carry on with the flight but, having flown the route on numerous prior occasions, I knew that there were no mountains with hard centres ahead.  Nevertheless Hluhluwe’s landing strip was a welcome sight at which point we left the N2, setting a GPS heading on a beeline over wilderness terrain through windy squalls for a final approach to the airstrip at Tembe Elephant Reserve. 

Crocodile researcher Peter Calverley met me at the reserve’s research camp where we did our planning for the following day’s air survey of crocodiles in Ndumu Game Reserve, which is just a 10 minute flight from Tembe. 

The weather on the 3rd was still overcast but calm, which was fortunate because the reserve’s myriad convoluted river and floodplain pans necessitated slow steep turns to allow Peter time to count and photograph basking saurians, some in groups exceeding 30 in number.  Although focused on crocodiles, Peter’s research project is also significant in terms of assessing the impacts of illegal occupation and subsistence slash-and-burn farming being imposed on the pristine Pongolo River floodplain by illegal squatters – principally from Mozambique.

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I was OC game ranger in the 1960s of this unique reserve when it was still in its pristine condition.  Witnessing, now, the destruction of huge riverine trees which are being felled for a handful of grain, made me detest with greater ferocity the provincial politicians who have encouraged this occupation by foreigners.  Apart from the reserve’s conservation value its long term social and economic values are inestimable.

Close to the illegal cultivations were large rafts of hippo and concentrations of crocodiles in the Pongolo, and herds of buffalo grazing new grass on the floodplain.  My own current research started in 1940 with ortho aerial photos.  Google Earth now shows a massive influx of additional Portuguese speaking people from Mozambique, taking advantage of the social largesse offered by our provincial government – facilities that are not available in their own country.  Furthermore the current status quo of these illegal squatters is sustained by a Swazi Tembe Prince whose family once was resident in  Mozambique.  The Ndumu Reserve, although miniscule in size – it represents just 1% of the entire Pongolo River floodplain – is South Africa’s equivalent of the Okavango floodplain. We cannot afford to lose it.

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Report from the beneficiary, by Peter Calverley

Nile Crocodile numbers have shown a decline since 1994. Disparate census techniques used in this survey are likely to be responsible for the difference in yield this year. Nonetheless, poaching activities and habitat destruction are having a negative impact on crocodile numbers in the reserve and must to some extent negatively effect the total population. These two factors combined have all but eradicated crocodiles outside of Ndumo Game Reserve and should not be considered lightly.

I would like to thank Paul Dutton for the aerial survey of 2nd October 2009 and for the wealth of information provided on Ndumo and surrounding areas. I would also like to thank Dr. Ricky Taylor and my supervisor Professor Colleen Downs for helping compile this report.

For the full report please download the pdf here

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