Aspects of the ecology of spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) in relation to prey availability, land use changes and conflict with humans in western Zimbabwe.
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Patch selection by carnivores is affected by various factors including availability of prey and denning areas, extent of vegetation cover, competition from sympatric large carnivores and anthropogenic habitat change among other variables. Understanding the influence of such factors is fundamental in the management of the carnivores. The study investigated spotted (i) hyena occupancy and (ii) co-occurrence with mesocarnivores in Zambezi National Park, Matetsi Safari (hunting) Area and Dimbangombe Ranch (mixed livestock and wildlife) in western Zimbabwe during the dry and wet seasons of 2014 and 2015 using camera traps. First, habitat characteristics, potential major prey and possible disturbance factors were modelled using the occupancy modelling approach to quantify habitat occupancy of the spotted hyena. It was found that the spotted hyena mean site occupancy was high (ψ = 0.617, SE = 0.147 and ψ = 0.502, SE = 0.107 for wet and dry seasons respectively). Furthermore, spotted hyena habitat occupancy increased in clayey soil and grasslands in the national park and hunting area, a behaviour attributed to denning preferences and possibly prey movement. Management priorities should focus on improving habitats for wild prey outside protected areas while preserving clayey areas for enhanced productivity of the spotted hyena inside protected areas. Secondly, it was predicted that mesocarnivores would avoid habitats occupied by the spotted hyena resulting in seasonal variation in temporal overlap between the spotted hyena and mesocarnivores. The study found that the detection probability of the mesocarnivores varied in the presence of the spotted hyena as a function of the detection of the leopard, presence of rocky and mixed vegetation habitats and road network. The high temporal coefficients of overlap for all pairs of species implied high chances of co-detection at the same sites. It was recommended that land management and top predator introductions should consider how optimal use of the habitat by small carnivores is affected. In addition, the study (iii) determined spotted hyena prey selection by comparing differences in frequency of occurrence of prey remains in their scats from a hunting area (117 scats) and a national park (137 scats). Small, medium and large-sized mammalian prey contributed 19.8 %, 41.9 % and 19.8 % to the diet of the spotted hyena in the safari area, compared with 34.3 %, 24.0 % and 35.9 % in the national park, inclusive of domestic stock (10.3 % in the safari area; 12.0 % in the national park). The difference in diet composition of the spotted hyena between the two land-uses was attributed to the ability of the species to shift between prey species in relation to the availability. Furthermore, a questionnaire survey was done (iv) to assess the attitudes and perceptions towards the spotted hyena of people (n = 353 households) in communities living at various distance categories within 0 - 20 km from the protected area boundary. It was found that livelihood source and extent of livestock loss had an influence on perceptions about the spotted hyena. The study recommended development of a modified incentive driven model that will encourage human-wildlife coexistence. Bushmeat harvesting is thought to affect prey distribution for the carnivores and a questionnaire survey was done on 355 households (v) to determine the factors driving bushmeat activities in the area in relation to conservation efforts. Bushmeat availability was highly influenced by scarcity of protein sources and season (dry). The dry season peak in bushmeat availability was attributed to increased demand that coincided with a period of low protein availability in the villages. The hunting zone (distance from protected area boundary) was the most influential predictor of how communities viewed illegal bushmeat harvesting in relation to conservation efforts. Mitigating illegal activities would likely be effective when started in settlements that are inside wildlife zones. Insights on community perceptions towards conservation may help in managing edge effects around PAs.