Habitat use of and threats to African large carnivores in a mixed-use landscape.
Strampelli P., Henschel P., Searle CE., Macdonald DW., Dickman AJ.
Large carnivores increasingly inhabit human-impacted landscapes, which exhibit heterogeneity in biotic resources, anthropogenic pressures, and management strategies. Understanding large carnivore habitat use in these modern systems is critical for their conservation, as is the evaluation of competing management approaches and the impacts of significant land use changes. We employed occupancy modelling to investigate habitat use of an intact eastern African large carnivore guild across the 45,000 km2 Ruaha-Rungwa landscape, in south-central Tanzania. We determined the relative impact of biotic, anthropogenic, and management factors on five large carnivore species, at two biologically meaningful scales. We also specifically tested the effect of a novel trend of trophy hunting area abandonment on large carnivore occurrence. Our results reveal contrasting habitat use patterns: lion were found to be particularly vulnerable to illegal human activity, while African wild dog were instead limited by biotic features, avoiding areas of high sympatric predator density and using less-productive habitats. Spotted hyaena and leopard were able to persist in more disturbed areas, and across habitat types. There was no evidence of large carnivore occurrence being impacted by whether an area was used for photographic or trophy hunting tourism, with regular law enforcement being instead more important. All species fared better in actively managed hunting areas compared to those that had been abandoned by operators. Overall, our findings highlight the divergent habitat requirements within large carnivore guilds, and the importance of adopting an integrated approach to large carnivore conservation planning in modern systems. We also identified a novel threat to African conservation areas, in the form of decreased management investments associated with the abandonment of trophy hunting areas, and provide the first assessment of this significant land management change on a large carnivore population. Article impact statement: Habitat degradation associated with ongoing hunting area abandonment is shown to be a novel threat to large African carnivore populations. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.