Mbombela - Scientists are both astonished and excited after more than 100 serval cats were captured on camera in a population study around Sasol's fuel plant in Secunda.
The Wildlife Resources Association (WRA) and the University of Pretoria did the research after several of the normally-elusive servals were seen in the 3 000 hectare grasslands of the secondary zone in late 2013.
"We haven’t had one game reserve with this type of density. The density is inflamed here for some reason and these are very healthy animals, despite the area being industrialised and next door to such a large, intensive fuel plant," said project co-ordinator Wayne Matthews.
The research team used scat collections, prey studies and DNA samples to try discover what is supporting such an unusually high population, especially since the cats are normally found well away from urban development areas.
Professor Michael Somers from the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Wildlife Management said that serval mortality is low, while the prey base is high.
"The serval prey base seems high which may explain the serval density, but more work is needed. If this is confirmed we now need to work out why the prey base is high," said Somers.
He said 15 serval were collared during the research.
Other carnivores discovered
Apart from the high serval population, the industrialised secondary zone yielded more surprises, when the cameras captured images of 10 other species of small to medium-sized carnivores, many of which are rarely seen.
The carnivores include large spotted genet, meerkat, cape fox, African clawless otter, black-backed jackal and five species of mongoose. The most significant find was of a large grey mongoose, which has never been recorded in the region before.
"I get excited about all carnivores, but finding a species in a new area is even more exciting. The question is: were they always there and only now being recorded because of the camera traps, or are they new to the area?" said Somers.
Somers explained that some animal species in South Africa are expanding their ranges.
"This could be caused by human encroachment onto natural habitat or perhaps climate changes. We don't yet know if the large gray mongoose has always been there or if this is a range expansion - but it is nice to see them there," said Somers.
Results 'exceed expectations'
The secondary industrialised zone, along with several other open areas owned by Sasol, are managed as game conservancies by the Sasol Synfuels Environmental Department, with the goal of contributing to valuable research efforts.
"We have in the past proclaimed most of the natural areas as biodiversity corridors in order to protect the environment and to ensure habitat for diversity. Sasol was in the past and even more in the future compliant to address the state of biodiversity on large open areas like the Secunda plant," said Sasol co-ordinator for the Secunda project, Daan Loock.
Loock said that the results of the project have exceeded all expectations.
"Someone in the past used words like 'truly remarkable', and this sums it up quite nicely. What’s really astounding for me is the fact that there is a partnership between the people on site, the structures in the veld and the wildlife occupying it, and it doesn’t seem to bother the wildlife. Hopefully our efforts would be a catalyst for other companies to do the same,” said Loock.
The project is anticipated to run for between five and eight years and is expected to be extremely valuable in assisting to fill yawning gaps in small carnivore research in South Africa.