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Photo of Pete Goodman Ways of the Wild

Ecologists like Pete Goodman have the challenging task of managing South Africa's wildlife as expanding human populations decrease open spaces for rhinoceros, elephants and other animals. What is the future for these animals? To help answer this, Pete Goodman answered viewers' questions as part of an Ask the Scientists panel after the premier of the Scientific American Frontiers Special Science Safari. Here are viewers' questions and his answers:

QWhen biologists set fire to the plains, is there any danger of desired animals being harmed?

Yes. Animals of all sizes are in danger of being harmed by both management induced fire as well as a wild fire. The degree of harm that any fire causes depends primarily on two things: 1. The group of animals and 2. The circumstances under which the fire burns.

Generally, the smaller slower moving animals are more susceptible than the larger, faster moving and agile animals. For instance I have seen insects, lizards, snakes, tortoises and rodents either injured or killed by fire, but I have never seen an antelope (e.g. impala, nay, wildebeest), megaherbivore (e.g. elephant, rhino, hippo) or mammalian predator (e.g. lion, leopard, cheetah) injured. With regard to the circumstances under which the fire burns, those that burn under mild conditions (cool moist days with low wind speeds) resulting in a low intensity fire, provide far greater opportunities for escape that high intensity fires (those burnt on hot dry days and at high wind speeds). Generally, when setting management fires, we err towards the milder conditions and adopt a point source burning strategy (as shown in the video), which emulates the way in which a wild fire is started and minimises the possibility of animals becoming entrapped by the fire.

QDo you or other biologists ever feel as if they are 'playing God' when they have to go in and literally decide how many of each species can live in a part of Africa?

If a wildlife biologist is implementing the philosophy to wildlife management that we have developed and are now expounding, he should not get the feeling of "playing God." To the contrary, the form of management we are advocating makes room for God, nature and man. We support and strive for the goal of conserving the indigenous biodiversity which has been set aside in a protected area. We believe that the way to achieve this is to maintain and or reinstate the ecological processes that gave rise to this diversity. We advocate that the correct role for man is in re-instating these processes where they have been disrupted by man in the past. In some instances, this might be impossible, so our next best option is to try and mimic the process in our management.

An example might be useful. African savanna parks are well known for their large predators such as lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dog and hyaena. As man occupied Africa and densities of people increased, the conflict between man and these predators became so intense that they were eradicated from large tracts of land. Thus by the time some of the protected areas were proclaimed, these important predators were already absent, leaving a system with one of the important processes which regulated the interaction between herbivores and vegetation (i.e. predation) in a much disrupted state. Under the management philosophy being advocated here, we would firstly explore the possibility of re-establishing the predator populations as has been done in Hluhluwe/Umfolozi (lions and wild dog have been re-established) and Mkuzi (leopards re-established). If this were for some socio-political or ecological reason not desirable (e.g. lion and wild dog in Mkuzi) then as a second resort, management attempts to emulate the effects of the absent predators in the system. In other words managers remove by live capture or culling, the number of animals that the now absent predators would have removed under natural circumstances and then allow the populations to fluctuate according to natural fluctuations in resources. On the other hand the "playing God" scenario would as you say set a carrying capacity for each species and then limit them to this number.

QHow did you get interested in working with animals? And what do you like best about being among all those animals in South Africa?

I got interested in animals (birds first) as a young teenager at school. Firstly, I loved the outdoors and secondly I became fascinated with the variety of species (of birds) that I encountered in the area that I went to school (approximately 320 species in all). This then grew to a fascination for the large mammal fauna of Africa, its interaction with the vegetation and then because some species and some of the park systems were under great threat at the time, to its management.

I think what I have enjoyed the most about the work I currently do is seeing how with a little guidance, a once heavily impacted system can be restored to something that is as close to "natural" and self-regulating as it could ever be.

QHave there been any instances where the rhino hurt someone? Do the rhinos get hurt when they are captured?

Yes there are many instances where rhino have hurt and killed people in parks in Africa. In Mkuzi Game Reserve alone we probably average about one serious injury a year. These are mostly parks authority management and scientific staff who are involved in daily law enforcement patrols and monitoring exercises. In one instance a young woman researcher studying baboon behaviour was tragically killed, and in another incident, a poacher was badly injured when laying wire snares at night.

To answer the second question, some rhino do suffer very minor injuries and bruises during the capture operation. These mainly occur in the early stages of anesthesia or during the loading operation.

QWhat do the people do with the animals they buy at the auction?

Animals that are bought at the game auction have three major destinations: other game reserves in Africa, private game parks and ranches and zoos. Animals destined for game reserves, private parks and zoos are used primarily as tourist attractions, in education or to re-instate the natural species complement in the area. Animals destined for game ranches are used as breeding stock for game harvesting schemes, and as trophies in the safari hunting business.

QMy parents have just returned from a visit to South Africa where they had a chance to see a pack of wild dogs in Kruger National Park. Are there any wild dogs in Umfolozi Park? Are these wild dogs an endangered species, and if so what measures are being taken to repopulate? My parents were told that the wild dog pack is dominated by a female and she is the only animal to have a litter. Is this true? What happens if another female in the pack has pups? My parents saw a pack of 17 wild dogs with 10 pups about 6 months old, is this unusual to have so many pups survive in the same litter?

Yes, there are wild dogs in Umfolozi, and the following information is relevant to your questions:

- Wild dogs were released into Hluhluwe section of Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park (HUP) in 1981 and have remained in that area. Occasional forays into Umfolozi have been undertaken. In 1995, two separate groups of dogs and three animals each moved into Umfolozi and appeared to remain there.

- Wild dogs are endangered in South Africa and in Africa.

- Natal Parks Board is currently engaged in a programme to reintroduce dogs to HUP. Wild dogs have also been introduced into Madikwe Reserve in North West Province. Efforts are underway to get farmers to accept dogs on private land. Some private game reserves are also keen to get dogs onto their land.

- Wild dogs are dominated by an alpha male and female. Usually only these two animals breed although occasionally the beta female produces a litter. Often these pups are killed by the alpha bitch.

- Litter sizes are large with mean litter sizes of 11 recorded.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.