The population ecology of the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) in the panhandle region of the Okavango Delta, Botswana
Thesis (PhD (Conservation Ecology and Entomology))--Stellenbosch University, 2008.
The Okavango Delta, Botswana, is a unique ecosystem and this is reflected in its extraordinary biodiversity. The Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus Laurenti) is the apex predator, and performs a number of vital functions in this system, making it a keystone species. The panhandle crocodile population has declined significantly over the last 80 years and is now threatened as a result of past over-exploitation and present human disturbance. In order to effectively conserve this species and in turn the health of this important region it is imperative to gain an understanding of their ecology and population dynamics. The population status of the Nile crocodile in the panhandle region of the Okavango Delta, Botswana, was assessed using a combination of capture-mark-recapture surveys, spotlight surveys and aerial surveys. The capture-mark-recapture experiment was conducted continuously from 2002 - 2006. A total of 1717 individuals, ranging in size from 136 mm – 2780 mm SVL, were captured, of which 224 animals were recaptured. Using a Bayesian technique, the total annual population in the panhandle region of the Okavango Delta was estimated to be 2 570 ± 151.06 individuals, with an adult population of 649.2 individuals with the number of breeding females estimated to be 364 individuals. It was concluded that this population cannot sustain the further harvest of breeding animals prior to the increase and stabilization of the population. Spotlight counts revealed a decline in the encounter-rate of crocodiles on the Okavango River with time, although more long-term data needs to be collected to confirm this trend. During the low-water season (September - February), 22.34 % of all crocodiles were observed, while during the flood-season only 13.34 % were observed, yielding correction factors for spotlight surveys of 4.46 (low-water) and 7.49 (high-water) for all animals in the panhandle. Two aerial surveys, conducted at the low-water and high-water peaks yielded total estimates of 588 (77.7 % of adults) during the low-water period and 350 (56.7 % of adults) during the high-water period. Correction factors of 1.28 (low-water) and 1.77 (high-water) were calculated for aerial surveys. An annual average of 50 nests was located in the panhandle, representing a 50 - 60 % decrease over the last 20 years. In regions with high human disturbance, breeding females situated their nests in hidden locations, away from accessible channels. Hatchlings exhibited elongation of the jaw in order to capture smaller prey items and morphometric shifts in jaw shape coincided with a dietary change at 400 mm SVL. The jaw became broader and deeper as animals matured, presumably in preparation for larger mammalian prey. The average growth rate of recaptured yearlings was 0.198 ± 0.116 mm.d-1 SVL and was closely correlated to the amount of time an individual spent in above-average water temperatures. Body condition (RCF) was significantly and positively correlated with a rise in water-level and negatively correlated to time spent in above-average water and air temperatures. Average RCF values were intersected when animals had spent 50 % of their time in above-average temperatures and water level. Generally crocodiles in the panhandle showed no significant sex-related differences in their sizes or the distances they travelled. The majority of recaptures (62.5 %) moved less than 500 m from the initial capture site. Adults in the panhandle occupied definite ranges, within which were preferred core areas where the majority of their time was spent. The panhandle crocodile population has declined significantly over the last 80 years, and is now threatened as a result of past over-exploitation and present human disturbance. The management of this population, including both its conservation and sustainable commercial utilisation, requires an adaptive strategy based on accurate monitoring procedures.