As part of the 20th Summer Drylands Programme (SDP) initiated by Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN) and Gobabeb Training and Research Centre, we, as participants, are carrying out a research project to determine the impacts of artificial water points on wildlife conservation in the Namib Desert.
In other words, we are trying to find out about the damage by animal activities done to soil and vegetation around artificial water points in a hyper-arid environment. The combined effects of animal activities such as trampling, defecating, and grazing often creates a piosphere effect, which is a visible reduction of soil and vegetation surrounding the water point that decreases as you move further away from the water point. Although some disturbance is inevitable around all water sources, we need to look for ways to minimise the damage by coming up with alternative wildlife management strategies to minimise the piosphere effect. The results from our research can be used as a tool for climate change adaptations and mitigation strategies for wildlife, which will be applicable to a wide variety of arid areas.
In order to carry out our study we selected four sites with artificial water points in the Namib Desert: Natab, Gemsbok waterpoint in Ganab, Sossusvlei and Escourt. At these sites we collected data on some of the important variables used to assess the piosphere effect, including vegetation, soil, dung, and tracks for a comprehensive study. Since this is the first time such a study is done in Namibia, we included all possible variables that may relate to the piosphere effect to assess the amount of disturbance.
Animal Dung and Tracks
As previously mentioned, two of the variables we focused on are animal dung and tracks, which we measured on three plots per site that exemplified three different grazing intensities. We counted the number of dung pellets within each plot in order to estimate animal density and to identify the species responsible for the dung. This way we can understand which animals frequently visit the water point and determine which species have the greatest impact on the soil and vegetation in the ecosystem.
Additionally, we counted and measured the animal paths within each plot. We will use path depth as a proxy to determine the utilization history of the water point; deeper paths indicate greater frequency of path. By looking at established paths, we could also determine the directions where the animals come and go to the water point. Additionally we recorded the slope of our plot and took note of the surrounding landscape, because the animals’ movement can be greatly influenced by these variables. With these measurements we can better determine the damage done on the vegetation, soil quality, small organisms as well as microorganisms related to the disturbance caused by animal presence.
During SDP we did not only focus on gaining results from the study, but we also learned practical research skills, which will prepare us as young scientists for future studies in environmentally related fields. As much as this was an educational experience, we also had the opportunity to visit adventurous places such as the Dead-Vlei, Sossusvlei dunes and Sesriem Canyon. We hope that the results obtained from our study can be used by decision makers to monitor change at our sites and gain a better understanding on how to holistically manage wildlife as aridity increases.