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Discovering Wildlife in Potone Sacred Forest

July 2, 2012

Special guest post written by Brendan Fisher, PhD– Senior Program Officer in the Conservation Science Program of WWF-US

The Regolo (“chief”) of Nampete Village has not seen a lion in Potone Sacred Forest for as long as he can remember.  But right now, in the misting rain, he is leading several of us down a path that leads to where the coastal forest meets mangrove forest to see the spoor (naturalist jargon for “footprint”) of the lion that passed through his village last night.  As we crouch down to examine the spoor, the Reglo and a little boy from the village look for other signs the lion might have left, but in the rain, and with the ever-changing nature of the mangrove edge, they find nothing.

Lion spoor seen in Potone

Nampete is located within Potone Sacred Forest.  This forest isn’t a large lush rainforest like those found in the Congo, nor a sprawling miombo woodland like those found across sub-Saharan Africa.  This area is part dry coastal forest, one of the rarest types of forest left across the continent, since most coastal forests have been exploited for timber, converted for charcoal or chopped down for farmland.  Forest still exists here because of its importance as a sacred place and also because of the medicinal values of many plants within its confines, upon which the local people depend.

But this area is much more than a coastal forest.  It is part of the Angoche Management Block – one of the key focal areas for the Alliance because it is a mosaic of land covers and land uses.  This management block has dry forest blending into mangrove forests and estuarine marine systems.  Ecologically, the estuaries are then connected through tides and seagrass beds to the coral reefs which fringe the Primeiras Islands and the islands themselves, which are important nesting areas for Green, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles.  Within the forest itself there are six long established communities that have rights to farm in the area, fish in the estuaries and utilize forest resources.  Hence, Potone is a complex socio-cultural land and seascape, one where humans and human activities are very much a part of the system and may even provide certain important ecological functions (like continuing once-natural fire regimes).  This is just the type of system that Emma Marris in her recent book “Rambunctious Garden” (2012), argues currently dominates the earth.  While her claim that we live in a “post-wild world” can be debated, there is no doubt that our Angoche Management Block is just this.

One of the things we are trying to better understand in this area is the faunal diversity (jargon for “animals”).  One early morning last week we sat with several of the forest guards going through mammal and bird field guides to try to get a sense of the creatures the rangers have seen in the area.  Some notables were leopard, serval, and suni (the latter a small antelope that could fit in your average backpack).

Forest guard, Carlos, explaining the crucial role guards play in Potone

After our info-session with the guards, we followed Manuel Matia Canivela along the Potone River channel, which is dry at this time of year, looking for signs of wildlife and also scouting out a good place to put up our new camera traps for field-testing.  Matia has been a guard here since 2008, spent his youth as a soldier, and points out signs of bush pigs here, grey duiker there and also signs that other rangers walked through this part of the bush a few days ago.  In a crook of the dry river bed, where a fine, sandy sediment has gathered, he shows us the clear sign that a snake had slid out of a hole in the bank, and then points to a single footprint. He looks up and whispers “animal que come cobra” – mongoose!  We were standing on the site of a recent battle between snake and snake-eater.  Slightly further up the channel we see spoor of genet – a small forest-loving carnivore that hunts at night.  The large-spotted genet (genetta tigrina) is one of the creatures that guards told us they’ve seen when we were paging through the guidebooks.

We set up the camera traps on the section with the genet spoor, and made our way back to the ranger camp.  The short story is – no genet.  The longer tale is that over the next few days we kept moving the cameras to different parts of Potone and saw many signs of duiker, suni, bushpigs. During our several tramps through the area we saw vervet monkeys, flap-necked chameleons, crowned hornbills, a few Burchill’s coucals and flushed several flocks of helmeted guineafowl out of the tall grass. One afternoon, while placing the camera trap in a palm tree, we scared four Lesser Bushbabies  out of their daytime slumber. They skirted up an adjoining tree at such a speed we all jumped back.  Then they sat and watched us as we finished setting the camera.  A few hours later we caught a grey duiker coming in to graze (see photo), but sadly the bushbabies successfully avoided the lens.

Grey duiker caught on camera trap

In the future we are planning to undertake more rigorous bird and mammal surveys of the area, but for now we are just trying to get a better sense of creatures that share this space with our six communities. (And trying to cultivate patience in ourselves so that we leave the traps in one place for more than one night…).

With an elephant passing through earlier this year, a lion last year, and our new evidence of another lion, we are beginning to see that this rambunctious garden is an important area for resident and transient populations of mammals.

The rub is that it is an important area for domesticated animals too.  Goats, sheep and cattle utilize Potone for grazing (and in turn probably play a key role in the system as populations of wild grazers decline).  Just prior to taking us to see the lion spoor, the Reglo of Nampete told us something else.  The lion had not just been on a leisurely stroll through forest and mangrove, but had actually taken a goat.  We saw the remains and met the farmer, who was now one goat short.

This event reminds us that in such a mixed-use landscape – tradeoffs exist.  Forest management might compete with farm expansion.  Agricultural projects might compete with carbon storage, and some wildlife might compete with domesticated animals for resources… or… simply eat them. As we get a better understanding of the species that use this management block and how they use it, we will be better prepared to deal with and manage such tradeoffs.

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