Analyzing the drivers behind the distribution patterns of the southern white rhinoceros across the South African savanna landscape
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The increase in demand for ivory has in recent years triggered an upsurge in the number of white rhinoceros poached in South Africa. This has not only altered the conservation status of the rhino to near threatened but also gravely threatens the savanna ecosystems in which they thrive. As a result, there is an urgent need to implement more effective conservation strategies to help protect the rhino from poaching and prevent a further demise in its conservation status. It has been suggested that to achieve this a better understanding is needed on the environmental factors that drive rhino distribution in the landscape. This will allow for conservationists to anticipate where the rhino are likely to be in the landscape and adjust management and protection plans accordingly. This research makes a preliminary analysis on understanding these dynamics with a select few indicators including vegetation cover, waterholes, wallows, temperature, precipitation, canopy cover, fire occurrence, and interaction with the African elephant. Through the use of four-year rhino distribution data this research is able to tentatively quantify for potential relationships to exist between rhino and various environmental indicators. By including an interaction effect of seasonality allows to further test how strongly each variable influences rhino distribution per season. The results show for NDVI, canopy cover, waterholes, precipitation, temperature and fire with a 6-month delay to be potential drivers of rhino distribution in the landscape. Nevertheless, no significant interactions were found to exist between rhino and wallows in the landscape. In addition, a strong interaction was found between rhino and elephants in the landscape, and especially between rhino and elephant bulls in the summer season. Although some clear relationships are found to exist, it is not possible yet to make sound conclusions due to a variety of limitations associated with this research including but not limited to the influence of confounding effects and the lack of sufficient data. While it remains to be further tested if the defined indicators truly effect rhino distribution in the landscape, this research does provide empirical evidence on potential relationships that may exist and should therefore be seen an exploratory study on which other research should be based.