Caught on camera crossing the line: A rail ecology study in the Greater Kruger

Hannah de Villiers, MSc Student (University of the Witwatersrand)

The EWT has been working with partners to identify and address wildlife-rail-mortalities and animal behaviour adjacent to the railway line on the Balule Nature Reserve, which is part of the open system connecting to the Kruger National Park. This railway line extends over 45 km from Hoedspruit to Phalaborwa, transporting copper and phosphate deposits. For several years, trains have killed wildlife, including giraffes, lions, elephants, and zebras, on the section of the railway line that bisects the reserve. Recent research by a student studying at the University of Venda and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Siboniso Thela, examined the seasonal use and deaths of mammals on the Balule railway. This baseline work indicated that there could be over 1,000 vertebrates killed annually on this one line. We urgently need to address the threat these animals face and the costs of these collisions to the rail operator, Transnet.

My study aims to understand whether animals use culverts, viaducts, or underpasses to safely cross beneath the railway line. The railway line is unfenced, so herds of Kruger’s elephant, buffalo, and impala often walk right over it, putting them at risk of train collisions. Underpasses are a key mitigation measure for the habitat fragmentation and collision impacts a railway can typically impose upon an ecosystem. Understanding which species use (or don’t use) the underpasses and what factors influence this are important for conserving biodiversity in this reserve and informing future railway mitigation measures.

One of the benefits of using camera traps for data collection in your research is the opportunity to be a “fly on the wall” whilst wild animals go about their daily lives. Out of more than 400,000 images collected during this study (the majority of which were of grass blowing in the wind on a hot day!), we captured some incredibly exciting photos of wildlife using or passing by railway underpasses.

This study is still work-in-progress, but for now, enjoy this fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of wild animals.

Keep an eye out next month for more!

This work is made possible by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Transfrontier Africa, the University of Freiburg, the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Venda, and the Ford Wildlife Foundation.

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