The Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta in the world and supports a vast array of critical ecosystem services within an otherwise semi-arid region of northern Botswana. Biodiversity values are one of the highest in southern Africa, and an important tourism economy in the region is based upon viewing opportunities that depend on a wide diversity of wildlife species.
Aerial wildlife surveys completed in 2010 documented a dramatic decline in several ungulate species across the region, with potential causes including poaching, habitat fragmentation, disrupted migration patterns, changes in habitat availability due to changing flood regimes, long-term drought and climate-induced changes in vegetation. Consequently, there is a recognized need to develop a regional understanding of how the dynamic ecological processes affect the distribution and availability of habitats for key wildlife species, how these habitats may change under different future scenarios including climate-induced changes and how these changes may alter the movement requirements and the distribution of key wildlife species.
Purpose and Objective
The purpose of the Northern Botswana Ecological Assessment (“Assessment”) and Wildlife Conservation Decision Support Tool (“DST) are to ensure the perpetuation of the rare interplay between wild landscapes, flourishing wildlife and human communities that makes this region an ecological treasure. The project’s objective is to describe current and predict future wildlife habitat and connectivity requirements in the Greater Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Chobe National Park, Nxai Pan National Park, Makgadikgadi Pans, Central Kalahari Game Reserve and surrounding areas.
These analyses will assist decision-making for habitat and wildlife management by providing a current assessment of wildlife habitats, wildlife and human use patterns, ecological and human interface and dynamics. The resulting DST will provide a dynamic, spatially-explicit platform for determining possible wildlife management regimes to compensate for future changes due to human uses and climate change. The DST will be set within the existing legal, administrative, and planning structures established for the region. The Project Team will work a closely with the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Okavango Research Institute to ensure that the DST is understood and functional into the future, and will develop strategies for updating and keeping the DST relevant.
The proposed study area for the Assessment and DST is encompassed by the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Chobe National Park, Nxai Pan National Park, Makgadikgadi Pans, Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the adjacent and surrounding Wildlife Management Areas and Pastoral Areas. To include changing flood regimes and climate-induced changes the analyses will also incorporate patterns and projections from the Okavango and Cuando-Linyanti-Chobe river systems.
Key wildlife species are fundamentally important to both the ecological and economic health of the region and some species may be particularly vulnerable to climate or human use driven changes in the distribution, quality, amount, juxtaposition and fragmentation of habitats and ecosystems. Most wildlife species are also mobile and therefore potentially resilient if habitat and connectivity requirements at a regional scale now and into the future are understood and incorporated into management decision-making. The Assessment and DST will incorporate key ecological and landscape processes that are integral to maintaining wildlife habitat distribution, quality and connectivity.
Significant research efforts have been undertaken in the Delta and surrounding areas on the dynamic relationships between flooding regimes and vegetation; groundwater levels and vegetation; and on predicted climate changes for vegetation distributions. There is also a significant amount of research and inventory on key ecosystems, ecological processes and the species that rely upon them including many important wildlife species. These research efforts will provide a foundation for the Assessment. Synthesizing these efforts to provide a regional perspective on the ecological functions, processes and vulnerabilities that determine the health of wildlife populations can provide critical support to management decision-making.
The effort is in three major phases, with stand-alone deliverables anticipated for each.
Phase 1. Project Design & Information Gathering: Secure project endorsement and funding; develop engagement strategy, study design and implementation strategy, compile existing ecological, cultural, land use and occupancy data sets; create data library, identify key information gaps and seek to fill them. Key activities and deliverables from Phase 1 include:
- Collaborate with the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks and Okavango Research Institute to develop an Engagement Strategy to build support from government, communities, funders and key stakeholders for the completion of the Northern Botswana Ecological Assessment and Decision Support Tool;
- Complete inventory of existing ecological and social spatial and non-spatial data and analyses and assess the spatial extent, quality, and utility of datasets for conservation planning & management;
- Complete outreach and development of project partnerships enabling collaboration, access and use of critical ecological and social information, data and analyses;
- Develop a study design to address the technical aspects required to advance Northern Botswana Ecological Assessment and Decision Support Tool. This will include the identification of focal ecosystems, ecosystem processes and species to best characterize the ecological conditions of the region now and into the future with a particular focus on characterizing the conditions for ecologically and socially important wildlife species;
- Complete compilation of best available spatial and non-spatial data and information on ecological and social values identified for the Assessment and DST;
- Identify key information gaps and develop strategy to address gaps;
- Build a data library of existing, relevant, and accessible spatial and non-spatial datasets and information.
- Develop a detailed work plan for completing Phase 2.
Phase 2. Baseline Assessment and Decision-Support Tool Development: The Focus of Phase 2 is to complete the analyses of current conditions to provide the basis for assessing potential changes into the future due to changes in climate or human use patterns. During Phase 2 deliverables will be based upon best available existing information on current ecological and social values (e.g., current vegetation/ecosystem classification, ecological processes, human use and infrastructure and seasonal habitat requirements of selected wildlife species). The regional assessment will provide a current assessment of conditions for selected wildlife species including the distribution, quality, amount, juxtaposition and fragmentation of habitats and ecosystems. Key deliverables from Phase 2 are include:
- Develop seasonal habitat models (e.g., wet season, dry season models) for selected species with modeling approach and resolution based on available information and resources;
- Predict current relative amount and distribution of seasonal habitats for selected species based on best available vegetation models and generalized or specific assumptions regarding key environmental and social drivers (e.g., flooding levels, rainfall conditions, human use patterns and infrastructure);
- Assess species-specific wildlife seasonal movement requirements through movement models that incorporate the best available information on historic and current movements, seasonal habitat distributions and potential barriers to movement;
- Assemble data, models and supporting spatial layers into a GIS-based toolkit that allows easy viewing, manipulation and updating of the information;
- Document assumptions, methods, results and limitations of the effort, as well as recommendations for next steps and management applications.
- Develop a detailed work plan to complete Phase 3.
Phase 3. Increasing the rigor and scientific robustness of the analyses: The data compilation, synthesis and model development undertaken in Phase 2 will be used to identify critical information gaps in our ability to understand and model current and potential future habitat distributions for key wildlife species in the Delta and surrounding region. A work plan for increasing the rigor and scientific robustness of analyses will be developed near the completion of the Phase 2. Key deliverables from Phase 3 are anticipated to include:
- Incorporation of on-going field data collection efforts to increase the robustness and precision of existing vegetation modeling, utilized to test habitat and movement models for robustness in fine-scale changes in vegetation classifications;
- Apply partially or fully executed habitat models to existing predictions of vegetation conditions under climate change scenarios; this will be dependent upon availability and quality of existing data on vegetation predictions. These analyses will emphasize identifying the potential change in habitat quantity and possibly major shifts in distributions;
- Examine ability to link population relative abundance and structure data to habitat predictions, landscape conditions (e.g., habitat configuration) or regional distributions; and
- Develop additional decision-support tools including a regional conservation area design identifying key areas for wildlife conservation under current and future conditions.
Project collaborators include the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Okavango Research Institute and Round River Conservation Studies. Phase 1 will be critical to identify additional collaborators and partners that may advance the work through contributions of data, expertise or other necessary resources.[/symple_toggle]