Creating larger and better connected protected areas enhances the persistence of big game species in the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot

The ideal conservation planning approach would enable decision-makers to use population viability analysis to assess the effects of management strategies and threats on all species at the landscape level. However, the lack of high-quality data derived from long-term studies, and uncertainty in model parameters and/or structure, often limit the use of population models to only a few species of conservation concern. We used spatially explicit metapopulation models in conjunction with multi-criteria decision analysis to assess how species-specific threats and management interventions would affect the persistence of African wild dog, black rhino, cheetah, elephant, leopard and lion, under six reserve scenarios, thereby providing the basis for deciding on a best course of conservation action in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, which forms the central component of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot. Overall, the results suggest that current strategies of managing populations within individual, small, fenced reserves are unlikely to enhance metapopulation persistence should catastrophic events affect populations in the future. Creating larger and better-connected protected areas would ensure that threats can be better mitigated in the future for both African wild dog and leopard, which can disperse naturally, and black rhino, cheetah, elephant, and lion, which are constrained by electric fences but can be managed using translocation. The importance of both size and connectivity should inform endangered megafauna conservation and management, especially in the context of restoration efforts in increasingly human-dominated landscapes.