As leader of the new Wildlife Free to Roam (WFR) research programme, Dr Katharina von Dürckheim focuses on creating connectivity corridors that allow wildlife to roam more easily between many of Southern Africa’s trans-boundary conservation areas.
WFR is based at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology. Supported by the Peace Parks Foundation, it was set up in honour of England’s late Prince Philip, in recognition of his support for conservation.
Dr. von Dürckheim is currently recruiting students for her research team and will be working in the Greater Limpopo and Kavango Zambezi trans-frontier conservation areas. These areas were formally endorsed by the governments of Southern Africa through dedicated brokering by the Peace Parks Foundation since 1997.
“The next important step is to create opportunities to connect these parks with each other. We must identify functional corridors and state forest reserves that will allow wide ranging species, such as the elephant, routes to move along,” says Von Dürckheim. “However, spatial bottlenecks are occurring”.
Some experts suggest that within three years, many of these corridors will be functionally extinct, due to the expansion of rural settlements.
“There’s a certain human density across which elephants and lions will not move. It leads to populations becoming isolated, and then inbreeding happens. Connectivity is therefore important, and to look for corridors and pathways that allow elephant, lion and wild dogs to roam.”
WFR, will identify, understand, manage and where possible secure, existing ecological networks that allow for greater wildlife movement, while keeping climate change und rural population expansion in mind.
Elephants as “corridor ambassadors”
Some of her previous research suggests that elephants can be ambassadors for whether ecological networks work. Their pathways are used by many other wildlife, including large mammals and predators.
“Elephants leave urine and dung behind on these pathways. These are like communication hubs. They contain olfactory messages that allow them to monitor which other elephants are around and are possibly ready to mate.”
Dr von Dürckheim, has pursued her passion as a wildlife scientist, wildlife editor and in working for NGOs. Through postgraduate research she has delved into elephants’ sense of smell, and into finding ways to solve the conflict between people and these African giants.