Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park is one of Africa’s largest national parks, roughly the size of the state of New Jersey. Ruaha’s many African buffalo, sometimes referred to as Cape buffalo, within the park are source populations for surrounding game reserves. Commercial and local community owned safari companies generate substantial revenue from hunting the iconic species.
However, Ruaha’s African buffalo population has been in significant decline. University of California, Davis’s Wildlife Health Center (WHC) has been investigating this unexplained decline in the Ruaha ecosystem for several years. SCI Foundation partnered with the WHC back in 2014.
A 2013 survey indicated far fewer buffalo than the last survey conducted in 2004. Zoonotic disease research and capacity building in local communities are ongoing parts of the project. Bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis have already been documented in at least one buffalo herd. Diseases such as these can reduce resilience of wildlife populations to other stressors.
With SCI Foundation, the project is leading more in-depth research on health, ecology, herd movement, and habitat use of Ruaha’s African buffalos. Nothing was previously known about buffalo home ranges or seasonal movements, except that herds disappear from the park during the wet season and return to congregate at the Great Ruaha River during the dry season. This seasonal movement may overlap with pastoral livestock populations.
Ten adult buffalo females from 4 different herds and 12 additional individuals were radio-collared and tested for disease in 2015. Additional aerial surveys will provide valuable information on herd movement, allowing wildlife managers to identify areas of concern for contact with livestock. Researchers hope to better understand current threats to the population and ecological drivers for movement behavior. Data will also be used by park rangers for anti-poaching purposes.
The most recent research involving a demographic survey and capture of more buffalo for disease testing was completed during the latest dry season. The population survey recorded age, sex and body condition while collecting 50 fecal samples per herd to be submitted for parasite analysis. Wet season surveys to estimate herd sizes and composition are conducted when possible. Research is showing that calf production is highly associated with rainfall from the previous wet season and that observed calf to cow ratios are within range for stable buffalo populations. Buffalo from herds that occupy peripheral areas of the Ruaha National Park still need to be collared and tested.
Disease study is a well-established field in wildlife conservation. Chronic wasting disease is a worrying problem for deer and other wildlife here in North America. Conservationists and scientists alike are increasingly concerned about exchange between wildlife and domestic livestock.
Long-term information collected from the Tanzania Ruaha African Buffalo Project will allow for better management and conservation of the species. This disease study will be relevant to other populations of Cape buffalo in eastern and southern Africa. Data can also be useful for anti-poaching units to improve effectiveness by patrolling key habitat corridors.
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