Makalali’s research activities are fueled by the support of the reserve’s wildlife/Rhino Monitors, rangers, and the Siyafunda volunteer program. The Siyafunda Conservation Initiative, located on the southern part of the reserve, was established to assist with existing research projects and provide the reserve warden with the necessary data needed to make well-informed decisions. Herbivore counts and predator monitoring are also essential for management decisions on the reserve.

 The two most important ongoing monitoring and research initiatives conducted on Makalali are:

  • Elephant Contraception- Behavioural and range utilisation monitoring of the elephants.
  • Lion & Predator Management- Behavioural monitoring of targeted females and range utilisation of the pride.

Siyafunda Research Programme

Siyafunda Programmes were initiated, with volunteers coming to the GMPGR since 2004.

All rangers that work for the Siyafunda volunteer program have a vast knowledge of the reserve and its animals. Through their work, they are involved in research and monitoring of both fauna and flora for not only their research purposes but others through interns conducting projects for their thesis.

This is a privately-run volunteer programme that operates on the Greater Makalali Nature Reserve and contributes to the monitoring of the reserve’s wildlife. They also assist the reserve warden with their research and various conservation projects.

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Elephant Contraception- Behavioural and range utilisation monitoring of the elephants.

Due to human encroachment and fences, Southern African elephants are losing their habitat, and scientists believe some elephant populations have grown too large. Methods of elephant population control have included culling and translocation, moving them to less populated areas.

The Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve (GMPGR), in collaboration with the Humane Society International (HSI), have successfully pioneered a remarkable new elephant growth management method: Immunocontraception.

Immunocontraception is a non-steroidal, non-hormonal, non-invasive method of reversible contraception that is administered through a vaccination. The drug comprises a protein-based component called porcine zona pellucida (PZP) extracted from the ovaries of domestic pigs. The zona pellucida (ZP) is the membranous coating that surrounds all mammalian eggs. When PZP is injected into a female elephant, her body produces antibodies that bind themselves to the sperm receptor sites around the capsule surrounding her egg. The shape of the sperm receptor sites are changed, meaning that the sperm has nowhere to attach itself, and thus fertilization and pregnancy is prevented.

Having demonstrated the vaccine’s efficacy in the Kruger National Park (KNP) field trials, the technique was fine-tuned and then applied in the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve (GMPGR), a private game reserve in South Africa. The objective here was to determine if the vaccine could be used as a remotely deliverable population control mechanism in wild, free-ranging elephant. The project which began in GMPGR in 2000, was first tested on 18 elephants. As of 2016, 26 cows are under treatment and the method has shown almost 100% efficacy.

What have we learnt that over the last 20 years demonstrates that immunocontraception is the obvious choice for controlling elephant populations?

  • No immobilisation of the animals is required; the vaccine is administered remotely by means of a drop-out dart.
  • Implementation is quick and efficient and complete within a few hours.
  • The vaccine does not affect pregnancies in progress, so if a pregnant female is vaccinated, she will carry to term and the offspring remains unharmed.
  • A 12-year behavioural study on the GMPGR elephants published in a peer-reviewed journal demonstrated that individual elephants showed no sign of physical or behavioural anomalies either in the short- or medium term. Herd and population behaviour, as well as sexual selection processes, remained unaffected despite the decline in the number of calves within the herds and the increased frequency in oestrus (as fertilisation is prevented).
  • This method is target specific and does not affect any other animals either directly or indirectly.  Once administered, PZP is easily assimilated by the body and hence does not pass into the food chain.
  • Reversibility has been demonstrated within the short to medium term.
  • The reduction of calving for defined periods can be compared to extended intercalving intervals experienced as a result of episodic natural catastrophes (e.g., drought or predation). Thus, natural processes are simulated.
  • Immunocontraception allows cohorts of births to occur, simulating natural gaps in recruitment in more natural low-resource conditions.
  • Immunocontraception allows elephants to occupy the same space but at lower overall numbers over time.
  • This method has dramatic effects on population numbers and prevents populations from doubling.

Currently > 700 female elephants in 22 protected areas ranging from 2,000 – 96,000 ha are being treated with immunocontraception in South Africa. PZP has been adopted by three provincial parks (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Ithala, iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Hluhluwe iMfolozi – largest park and population) and one national park (Addo). Within these populations, the growth rate is managed in accordance with the carrying capacity of the site-specific habitat as well as the innate social and spatial nature of the species.

PZP-immunocontraception presents a proactive means of population control in elephants. If immunocontraception is not implemented, then the consequences of alternative methods, such as culling, must be fully examined and considered. In a world where an elephant is killed every 15 minutes for its tusks, do we really want to add to this number through culling, when a safe, humane alternative has been demonstrated to exist?

The GMPGR consult to Audrey Delsink Kettles, elephant ecologist and Executive Director of Humane Society International/Africa. She is a Ph.D. Candidate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Amarula Elephant Research Programme and has been involved in the benchmark Makalali study since its inception in 2000.  She works with protected area managers in a few reserves in South Africa.

Lion & Predator Management- Behavioural monitoring of targeted females and range utilisation of the pride.

Predator Management

In all enclosed (fenced-in) game reserves, animal numbers (both predator and prey species) need to be carefully managed because they exist in closed environments. It is essential that the delicate balance between predator and prey be carefully maintained. Furthermore, these ecosystem components cannot exist if the basic building block, i.e. their habitat, is in an unhealthy or compromised state. For the past two decades, the Reserve Management has been actively involved with independent researchers to gain further understanding on the challenges of managing predators in a multi-guild system. Extensive research has been conducted on the resident lion, cheetah and leopard populations. These studies have been instrumental in enhancing our understanding of multi-pride (lion) systems, as well as contributing to national and provincial legislation to assist in devising sustainable leopard management policies. On-going research will contribute towards the first Species Action Plan for lions in South Africa which is currently under development. Research collaborations between the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve and the Tshwane University of Technology, Panthera, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, ALERT (African Lion & Environmental Research Trust), Charles Stuart University, the Lion Management Forum, Rhodes University and the University of Minnesota, have produced a number of peer-reviewed publications.

The Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve is involved in a collaborative project with the Department of Nature Conservation at Tshwane University of Technology being carried out by doctoral student Susan Miller, under the supervision of Dr Paul Funston. Susan is examining the pride dynamics and genetic status of isolated lion populations across South Africa with the goal of improving their conservation value through the development of a national management plan for all lions in South Africa (see below for details). In keeping with their keen interest in lion management issues, The Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve is supporting this project by providing historical data on their lion population as well as DNA samples from their current lions.

Lion conservation on small game reserves in South Africa: a managed population network approach

The African lion (Panthera leo) is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Bauer et al., 2008). In South Africa lions were extirpated from much of their historical range by the 1900’s (Nowell & Jackson, 1996). However, lions have been reintroduced into reserves in South Africa since the early 1990s (reviews Funston, 2008; Slotow & Hunter, 2009). While most of these lion reintroductions have been successful on the reserve level, they are for the most part micromanaged (Hayward et al., 2007; Hunter et al., 2007), showing tendencies towards inbreeding (Trinkel et al. 2010), and are thus of questionable conservation value (Slotow & Hunter, 2009). It has, therefore, been suggested that conservation areas in South Africa need to move away from micromanagement of lions towards a managed population network approach (Funston, 2008; Slotow & Hunter, 2009; Hayward & Kerley, 2009). It has been recognised that conservation ethics are not enough to drive the management of a species on private conservation areas where animals must contribute to the economy and thus, to ensure their survival, lions need to become drivers of socio-economic-ecological systems rather than a “threatened species”. Therefore, and any management recommendations must, realistically, consider the economic value of lions while trying to ensure their biological survival though sound ecologically based practices (Mokola LiMF workshop discussions, 2010).

With the encroachment of humans into wild animal habitats and the resulting isolation of small populations, natural movement and mixing has been hampered and often completely eliminated leading to increased inbreeding, genetic drift, local extinction and risk of extinction of whole species (Hayward & Kerley, 2009). Human intervention can be used to mimic natural movement between isolated populations thus reducing genetic consequences as is being done for the wild dog (Lycaon pictus) in South Africa (reviewed Gusset et al., 2008; Davies-Mostert et al., 2009).

This project aims to explore several aspects required for the successful design of a population network for lions in South Africa. Specifically we aim to examine how management decisions affect pride structure on conservation areas; determine the genetic integrity of these populations; and examine the economics of conserving lions in small protected areas as part of a conservation network. Ultimately we aim to determine the model that best fits and addresses the failings of the current setup and predict its effect if applied to the current population. All this information will aid in the development of a National Lion Management Plan that has been instigated by the Lion Management Forum (LiMF.)

Managing lions in small reserves

The lion study is a large-scale research project that proposes to generate a document to facilitate and enhance the management of lions in small reserves. This project has two stages. The University of Natal has completed the first stage using historical records from Kruger Park, Umfolozi Game Reserve, and the Serengeti to map the influence of habitat (vegetation, topography), herbivore distribution and rainfall on lion group sizes, compositions, and reproductive rates.

The data were used to predict how lions should behave and reproduce in any small area for which the environmental characteristics are known. The second stage of the project is to test these predictions in a range of small reserves as they introduce lions. This will validate the model that we are using, and any deviations from the model will allow us to reassess the parameters. A final, revised predictive model will be generated that will allow the manager of a small reserve to understand the impact of introducing lions to that reserve.

Lion Contraception

Contraception has become a useful tool in population management of wild carnivores in zoos, wildlife sanctuaries and smaller conservancies. The choice of reversible or irreversible methods depends on requirements. The main reason for carnivore contraception in southern Africa is to slow down the rate of breeding rather than permanent sterilization or culling.

In South Africa, lions are kept on a number of smaller game reserves (1,000-10,000 ha) where they are allowed to range freely with prey species. Under such conditions, the lack of competition from other lions and large predators results in an increased cub survival rate. The resulting population explosion leads to depletion of prey species, which are expensive to replace. To solve the problem, the rate of reproduction should be slowed down and, for genetic reasons; lionesses should be allowed to breed on a rotational basis.

The Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve has adopted lion contraception, which consists of a hormonal implant, as part of their lion management regime.

On-going Research on the GMNR

Snapshot Safari

Hundreds of camera-traps spread across southern Africa are providing a powerful new window into the dynamics of Africa’s most elusive wildlife species In response to the urgent need for accurate assessment of wildlife populations, Snapshot Safari is an unprecedented collaborative network of camera-trap grids in wildlife parks and reserves throughout Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, with sites from Kenya, Malawi, and Rwanda coming online soon. By using the same data collection protocols at each protected area, they will evaluate how well wildlife are faring under different management strategies, providing valuable information to researchers and reserve managers.

Snapshot Safari relies on online volunteers (“citizen scientists”) to classify thousands of images of wildlife photographed by cameras uniformly dispersed throughout each protected area, providing a glimpse into the lives of endangered species and the distribution of wildlife across many landscapes. With the help of accurate camera-trap censuses, we will be able to identify which sites are being managed most successfully – and, hence, which conservation strategies should be incorporated into the toolbox for effective wildlife management.

The Lion Center’s renowned flagship citizen science project, Snapshot Serengeti, broke ground in 2010 when our researchers installed 225 camera traps in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Camera-traps use passive infrared sensors that take a series of three photographs when a warm object moves in front of the sensor. Our cameras snapped over 10 million photos, which were uploaded to an online platform hosted by for classification by citizen scientists. Over 165,000 people volunteered from countries around the world!

Currently, Snapshot Safari receive camera-trap data from 18 participating reserves.

Preserving biodiversity is one of the most pressing tasks for ecologists in the face of global climate change and an expanding human population. African lion (Panthera leo) populations are now limited to 17% of their former home ranges, and their populations continue to decline in every African country except South Africa, as do populations of leopards, cheetahs, elephants, rhino, and giraffe. To understand the best way to protect these species, Snapshot Safari considers multiple ecological factors like dispersal, reproductive limits, resource distribution, and species interactions. With this approach, we will provide guidance on how populations can withstand anthropogenic disturbance and climate change.

Camera-trapping has revolutionized biodiversity monitoring in the 21st century. Large-scale camera-trap grids offer a minimally invasive, low cost system for monitoring wildlife population trends. Additionally, camera traps have a higher capture rate for rare and cryptic species than observers on foot. These benefits make camera trapping a popular observation method, but the proliferation of projects has resulted in conflicting methodologies that are not comparable due to differences in time, scale, or protocols. In a world of big data, ecologists must find ways to coordinate data collection so that we can collectively study drivers of ecosystem change and stability worldwide. Snapshot Safari is an international effort to standardize camera-trapping protocols at key African protected areas and collaborate with an unprecedented network of researchers, park managers, conservation organizations, and volunteer groups to evaluate and improve conservation outcomes.

Results & Educational Outreach:

Once classified and validated, the camera-trap data will be made available for scientific and educational purposes throughout the world. We have developed teaching modules for undergraduate courses in American universities using the data collected by Snapshot Serengeti and have recently formed a partnership with Howard Hughes Medical Institute for the development of educational materials for middle and high school level courses using the data from Snapshot Safari. Once completed, these materials will be made publicly available for use in classrooms around the world at www.hhmi/org/biointeractive and translated into several African languages for use in African classrooms.

We maintain online blogs and talk pages that engage our volunteers who want to learn more about African wildlife and conservation. Volunteers can save, tag, and share their favorite photos and learn more about the beautiful parks and reserves where this wildlife were photographed.

There are 19 cameras out on the Greater Makalali Nature Reserve (GMNR.) The photos are collected every 4-6 weeks and put into a Google Drive for the University of Minnesota to access.

This camera trap data is looked at by researchers who will look at trophic interactions, community compositions, species coexistence, species competition and other ecological relationships across a variety of habitat types.

Assessing conservation strategies using camera traps:

Snapshot Safari images on the Greater Makalali Nature Reserve that provide data needed to identify successful management practices.


The leopard is likely the most persecuted large cat in the world. Extinct in six countries and possibly extinct in six additional countries, leopards have vanished from at least 49 percent of their historic range in Africa and 84 percent of their historic range in Eurasia.

The species is threatened by illegal killing for their skins and other body parts used for ceremonial regalia, conflict with local people, rampant bushmeat poaching, and poorly managed trophy hunting.

Leopards are listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The leopard is classified as “Endangered” in Central Asia and Sri Lanka and “Critically Endangered” in the Middle East, Russia, and on the Indonesian island of Java.