In this Peace Parks TV episode, we showcase the effectiveness of an aerial census to capture wildlife data in national parks, which can be used to inform conservation decision-making.

In October 2023, an aerial census was conducted by the Maputo, Zinave, Banhine and Limpopo National Parks to determine their wildlife populations. This was the first time a full park census was conducted in all four of the parks.

Observers count manually

The aerial census essentially uses two methods: a fixed-wing survey conducted in a Cessna six-seater Model 206 aircraft covers the centres of the park, combined with a survey done in a Robinson R44 helicopter. The latter specifically transports the observers across predetermined transect lines over protected areas of high game concentration, close to rivers and waterbodies that wildlife frequent, to count all the animals they see. The plane is used largely across the landscapes, by flying in exact transects – a straight line predetermined by the GPS – with a counter on each side of the plane. The team then counts everything within 400 metres to the left and right of the plane.

The observers are accompanied by a pilot and ecologist who has access to a computer linked with GPS, to capture all the data as animals are counted. The piloting and data counting are conducted by each park’s team individually, with support from experts that will undertake the data capture, analysis and reporting.

The aerial census is conducted biennially, with support from the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) and Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas (ANAC). As a result of this collaboration, a Long Ranger helicopter can be used, which Cathariné Hanekom – District Ecologist of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – explains enables the team to train new observers and transfer skills within the transfrontier park space.

Encouraging preliminary results

In Maputo National Park, a far wider distribution of wildlife, populating all corners of the park, has been observed. Some of this wildlife will now be relocated to Banhine National Park. This was the first full park census done in Banhine since the restructuring of the boundaries of the park. The census results will therefore provide guidance on where the park can focus their anti-poaching efforts and how to structure their rewilding – where they should focus their core sanctuary, water, and drop off the animals when relocation starts.

Zinave is reaping the fruits of a massive rewilding programme that was recently undertaken, resulting in the visibility of the big five, and an early estimate of 20% growth in the common species of wildlife. This population will grow even more, once the sanctuary fences are dropped and those animals also start repopulating.

In Limpopo National Park, it’s the first census conducted since the entire northern portion of the park has been placed under full protection and conservation without communities present in that landscape. The results indicate substantial growth, and a far wider distribution of wildlife in the park. Of the preliminary results in all the parks, Peace Parks’ Senior Project Manager for Mozambique, Antony Alexander, noted: “It gives us confidence that we know what species are there and that can guide us also for relocation and repopulation of other parks.”