A reliable game count is one of the important cornerstones of effective game ranch management.
According to Wildlife Vets Namibia, game management is a vast topic that includes many different aspects, of which the most important is to keep healthy and balanced herds of animals in such numbers that the habitat thrives.
It said a game count – or more correctly, a game census – enables farmers to determine trends in animal population density, farm stocking rates and the condition of the veld.
“By doing game counts, you gather important information on the numbers of animals in different species, the spatial distribution of game species on a farm, trends in game numbers and habitat health.”
Wildlife Vets said this information enables farmers to make sound management decisions.
“By doing a game count, you try to make an accurate estimation of the population of animals on the farm, but it is a mere snapshot in time. Far more important information is gained by comparing current game counts to past results. This enables you to evaluate population trends and how the veld has changed with these numbers of animals.”
For effective game management, and especially to establish trends in populations, a thorough – ideally aerial – game count should be conducted annually or biannually, it said.
“This should be done before considering harvesting large numbers of animals as it often happens that a farmer sells more game than he or she actually has.”
According to Wildlife Vets, there are many techniques used for counting game.
It pointed out that accurate or exact game counts on large areas is nearly impossible.
“Rather than knowing the exact number of animals you have, focus on obtaining repeatable counts (estimates) in an area to act as a reliable foundation for habitat and population management.”
Farmers can choose to do total counts, where they try to count all the animals in a certain area, or sample counts, which will see them counting smaller representative sample areas, and drawing conclusions for the bigger area.
However, Wildlife Vets said the best overall way to obtain game numbers – as well as sex ratios and age classes – on a farm is usually by combining game count techniques.
“There is no single counting technique that is suitable for everything. You decide on a technique(s) based on the above factors. But knowledge of your animals and their preferred habitat is also important.”
For instance, antelopes in open areas can be easily counted by aerial counts, while klipspringers can be difficult to spot and are easier seen at night with the use of a spotlight.
Aerial game counts
Helicopters and fixed-wing aircrafts are commonly used to count game, and are a useful way to obtain fairly reliable information on game on a farm. In large areas, this is usually the only practical and realistic way of counting animals.
Although aerial counts might be relatively expensive, they are less time-consuming than any of the other techniques.
Certain species – such as wildebeest, zebra and giraffe – tend to form fairly constant groups. By repeatedly monitoring and recording the number of animals, sex ratios and age classes of individual herds, a fairly accurate count of and knowledge of their habitat preferences can be obtained.
Highly territorial animals can be counted in a similar way. The same applies where limited numbers of a certain species are present on a farm.
Road strip counts
In a road strip count, a vehicle is driven along a selected network of roads. Most farms have a more or less well-developed network of roads which can be used for road strip counts.
However, the areas these roads traverse should be proportionally representative of the entire habitat on a farm; game visibility from these roads should be good, and the roads and vehicle should be in such a condition that the vehicle can approach game without making too much noise.
Spotlight census technique
The so-called ‘spotlight census technique’ is basically the same as the road strip count, but counts are conducted at night with the use of spotlights. One can drive around with vehicles and spot the animals, or stands on a fixed spot.
Wildlife Vets Namibia added that technology is constantly evolving.
“As a result, new technologies are being tested with the aim of improving the accuracy of game counts.”
An example is the use of drones and unmanned airplanes.
“Transects are flown, and the drone/airplane takes photos, often with infrared cameras that pick-up animals standing under a thick canopy of trees. These photos are then processed by specific software which makes use of artificial intelligence (AI) to both count and identify animals. Some of these software programmes have a learning function, thus getting ‘smarter’ every time they process photos.