#WORLDWILDLIFEDAY: Understanding wildlife as a way to save them

Posted on March 03, 2022

For many people, activities such as bird watching, hiking through the veld, mountains, and forests, or simply visiting a protected area are extremely important. This is especially true here in South Africa as we are very fortunate to have a wide range of stunning landscapes, animals, and plants. However, it is estimated that around one million animal and plant species across the planet are threatened with extinction. On land, native species have declined by at least 20% since 1900. In addition, around 33% of corals and marine mammals, including whales and dolphins, are threatened in the sea.

This may seem sad, but somewhat distant. Still, it is important to remember that the loss of species and habitats is not just the loss of pretty places and things but rather a loss of ecosystem services vital to human existence on this planet. To acknowledge this loss, the United Nations instituted World Wildlife Day on 3 March. In doing so, this provides an opportunity to recognise the efforts needed to conserve animals and plants and inspire people to take action and get involved.

For researchers in the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria, understanding how animals utilise landscapes, find food, and avoid predators is vital to conserving these species.

Rodents, including mice and rats, are often regarded as pests because of their feeding habits and the diseases they can carry. While working to resolve these issues, Prof Chris Chimimba also describes the diversity of lesser-known and vulnerable species. Next, Prof Nigel Bennett, Dr Mark Keith, and Dr Marietjie Oosthuizen explore the ecology, behaviour, and physiology of small mammals, including mole rats, ice rats, and bats. These small mammals also harbour a diverse range of ectoparasites that can then be passed on to other wildlife. Hence, Dr Heike Lutermann studies this microcosm of interactions between animals to understand how they influence each other. Finally, Prof Armanda Bastos researches wildlife diseases and their transmission to help maintain healthy wildlife populations.

Human activities are causing dramatic changes to our natural world. The catastrophic changes to the global climate are well known, but habitat destruction, overexploitation, pollution, and invasive species also negatively affect wildlife. Prof Andre Ganswindt focuses his research on the impacts and causes of stress in a wide range of animals affected by the drivers of global change. The Hot Birds Research Project in which Prof Andrew McKechnie plays a significant role focuses on how changing global temperatures affect bird populations across the planet. Prof Adrian M Shrader studies large mammals' landscape use and foraging decisions, including white rhinos, elephants, zebra, and impala. The focus of Prof Michael Somers's research is the conservation of predators of some of these herbivores, including lions and wild dogs, and how they come into conflict with humans. Finally, Dr Mohlamatsane Mokhatla conducts research on the conservation of South Africa's frog species, almost a third of which are threatened by human-driven environmental changes.

Moving to our oceans, Prof Nico de Bruyn is interested in the factors that lead to changes in the populations of marine mammals such as elephant seals and killer whales. Dr Mia Wege focuses her research on marine predators' distribution, habitat use, and population dynamics. Dr Carel Osthuizen works on the diversity, movement and conservation of fish species found along the coast of South Africa.

Through the extensive research programme of the staff and students in the Department of Zoology and Entomology, the University of Pretoria is directly contributing to the conservation of Africa's wildlife.

Do animals fascinate you? Do you want to be a part of this exciting and dynamic department? If so, join us by registering at the University of Pretoria in either BSc (Ecology) or BSc (Zoology) programmes.



- Author Profs Adrian M Shrader and Chris Weldon

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