Responses of carnivore assemblages to decentralized conservation approaches in a South African landscape.
Conservation efforts in South Africa play out across multi-use landscapes where formal protected areas coexist with private wildlife business (ecotourism and/or hunting) in a human-dominated matrix. Despite the persistence of highly diverse carnivore guilds, management idiosyncrasies are often orientated towards charismatic large predators and assemblage-level patterns remain largely unexplored. We conducted an extensive camera-trap survey in a natural quasi-experimental setting in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. We sampled across a protection gradient characterized by a provincial protected area (highest and formal protection status), a private ecotourism reserve, game ranches and traditional communal areas (lowest protected status). We evaluated assemblage-level and species-specific responses of free-ranging carnivores to the varying management contexts and associated environmental gradients. Despite similar assemblage composition between management contexts, site-scale carnivore richness and occupancy rates were greater in the formal protected area than adjacent private reserve and game ranches. Carnivore occupancy was more similar between these private wildlife areas, although putative problem species were more common in the private reserve, and contrasted with depauperate assemblages in least protected communal lands. Variation in carnivore occupancy probabilities was largely driven by land use contexts, that is, the level and nature of protection, relative to underlying fine-scale landscape attributes (e.g. distance to conservation fences) or apex predator populations. Synthesis and applications. Our findings provide convincing empirical support for the added value of multi-tenure conservation estates augmenting and connecting South Africa's protected areas. However, our emphasis on free-ranging carnivores exemplifies the importance of maintaining areas under long-term formal protection and the risks with viewing lucrative wildlife business as a conservation panacea. We suggest that unmanaged carnivore species be the formal components of carnivore reintroduction and recovery programmes to better gauge the complementary conservation role of South Africa's private land.