How landscape scale changes affect ecological processes in conservation areas: external factors influence land use by zebra (Equus burchelli) in the Okavango Delta



Most large-bodied wildlife populations in sub-Saharan Africa only survive in conservation areas, but are continuing to decline because external changes influence ecological processes within reserves, leading to a lack of functionality. However, failure to understand how landscape scale changes influence ecological processes limits our ability to manage protected areas. We used GPS movement data to calculate dry season home ranges for 14 zebra mares in the Okavango Delta and investigated the effects of a range of landscape characteristics (number of habitat patches, mean patch shape, mean index of juxtaposition, and interspersion) on home range size. Resource utilization functions (RUF) were calculated to investigate how specific landscape characteristics affected space use. Space use by all zebra was clustered. In the wetter (Central) parts of the Delta home range size was negatively correlated with the density of habitat patches, more complex patch shapes, low juxtaposition of habitats and an increased availability of floodplain and grassland habitats. In the drier (Peripheral) parts of the Delta, higher use by zebra was also associated with a greater availability of floodplain and grassland habitats, but a lower density of patches and simpler patch shapes. The most important landscape characteristic was not consistent between zebra within the same area of the Delta, suggesting that no single foraging strategy is substantially superior to others, and so animals using different foraging strategies may all thrive. The distribution and complexity of habitat patches are crucial in determining space use by zebra. The extent and duration of seasonal flooding is the principal process affecting habitat patch characteristics in the Okavango Delta, particularly the availability of floodplains, which are the habitat at greatest risk from climate change and anthropogenic disturbance to the Okavango's catchment basin. Understanding how the factors that determine habitat complexity may change in the future is critical to the conservation of large mammal populations. Our study shows the importance of maintaining flood levels in the Okavango Delta and how the loss of seasonal floodplains will be compounded by changes in habitat configuration, forcing zebra to change their relative space use and enlarge home ranges, leading to increased competition for key resources and population declines.