The ecology of Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) in Pongolapoort Dam, Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
In general Nile Crocodile Crocodylus niloticus numbers in South Africa appeared to have recovered after persecution and eradication attempts during the last century. Within the last decade, however, the future of South Africa’s Nile Crocodiles seems ominous yet again, as they are faced with renewed threats including habitat destruction and/or degradation. The primary Nile Crocodile populations in South Africa, Kruger National Park, Lake St Lucia and Ndumo Game Reserve are all currently threatened as a result of anthropogenic actions. The vulnerability of South Africa’s major Nile Crocodile populations has highlighted the need for further studies on and assessment of other populations in the country. This study was conducted from April 2009 to July 2010 on the Nile Crocodile population found in Pongolapoort Dam. The aim of the study was to obtain baseline data on the ecology of this previously unstudied population, which included obtaining an estimate of population size and structure, the reproductive dynamics and success of the population, general distribution of the population in the dam and seasonal changes in their distribution. The impact of the impoundment on this population was also discussed. Initial surveys from 1981 and 1989 described few crocodiles in the system. Currently Pongolapoort Dam contains a significant Nile Crocodile population that was previously not considered as substantial. A conservative estimate of 273 Nile Crocodiles was determined for Pongolapoort Dam in 2009-2010. A combination of survey methods allowed for a population structure to be gauged and identified as having 116 juveniles (< 1.2 m), 75 sub-adults (1.2 - 2.5 m), and 82 adults (> 2.5 m). Currently the population has a high percentage of juveniles (42 %), suggesting a growing population, with the proportion of adults (30 %) able to sustain a viable population into the future. From the construction of the Pongolapoort impoundment in 1972 the water level has fluctuated and the surrounding landscape has been altered. As a result the Nile Crocodiles residing in the area had to adapt to the ever changing environment. Their general distribution changed after dam wall completion, when the dam began to fill. First distributional change was a movement out of the gorge section into the newly flooded areas. After the Domoina floods (1983) the dam level rose by over 70 % and the crocodiles moved into the current inlet section. The majority of the crocodile population is now found in the inlet section of the Pongolapoort Dam, utilizing the Phongola River in summer months and residing in the inlet section as historical basking sites during the winter months. Investigating reproductive ecology is essential in order to access the population dynamics of an unstudied population, as reproductive output can be a measure of population health. Reproduction and nesting of Nile Crocodiles in Pongolapoort Dam, and in particular determining the effects of the impoundment on these were investigated. No previous reproductive effort had been documented prior to this study. Crocodiles congregated at a major basking site, where the Phongola River entered the dam, during August 2009 with a 576 % increase in numbers. This signalled the commencement of the breeding season. Females with transmitters made short trips upstream during this time. In November, with the first rains, the river rose and the majority of crocodiles moved up the inlet, and females established nests. Three major nesting areas were identified, two of which were located in the river inlet to the dam. Approximately 30 nesting females were identified during the 2009/2010 nesting season. All nesting areas identified had been used in prior nesting seasons. Nests were located on a variety of substrate types, from clay formed through culluvial and fluvial deposits to course river sand. Several of the nests were predated by Water Monitor (Varanus niloticus). Although the number of nesting females was greater than expected, during the study period there was a total recruitment failure of nests along the river due to a flash flood of the Phongola River in January 2010, destroying all nests prior to hatching. As several juvenile crocodiles were found during surveys, this preliminary study suggests that the Pongolapoort Dam Nile Crocodile population has a relatively high potential reproductive out-put, although their annual successes may vary greatly because of loss of nesting sites because of water level fluctuations and predation. It appears that the impoundment has generally had a positive impact on this Nile Crocodile population recruitment although suitable nesting sites may become limited. There appear to be no current threats to the Nile Crocodile Pongolapoort Dam population, however illegal gill-netting and poaching on the dam and surrounding reserves is on the rise and if not prohibited can result in future problems. A second concern is the high abundance of alien invasive plants that dominate the area, most notably in the river inlet section, the Nile Crocodiles main nesting area. The water quality entering the system is unknown at present and should be tested in future studies to assess whether there may be any reason for concern. In general the Nile Crocodile population in Pongolapoort Dam appears to be one of the least vulnerable and most reproductively successful in South Africa at present. The population has increased dramatically as a result of successful reproductive output even with the ecosystem changes as a result of the impoundment of the Phongola River. It is unlikely that the population increase was as a result of immigration from surrounding areas as the dam wall is a substantial barrier between the dam and the lower crocodile population of Ndumo Game Reserve some 70 km downstream. The high number of crocodiles found through all size classes, juveniles to large adults, also suggests that this population has been stably increasing for a number of years and has a sustainable breeding population.