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Posted on: Monday, 9 January 2012

The Cape Leopard Trust – small cats with big problems

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Dr Quinton Martins, the man behind The Cape Leopard Trust, has seen only seven ad hoc sightings of wild leopards in the Cederberg where his research takes place in eight years. Even with collars, he sees but a few each year. The Cape Leopard is a vulnerable, isolated population that occurs at low density in the mountains of the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape. Due to the influence of European settlers over the past 350 years, it has already been made extinct in many areas where it used to roam. As the trust headlines in its adverts to raise awareness: Leopards of the Cape are small cats with BIG problems …

Cape leopards are special – for one, they’re incredibly beautiful, but they’re also much smaller than those found in other parts of Africa, and they are the top predator in the mountains of the Cape. Their extinction can have an impact on the entire ecosystem. What this means is that the leopard is the apex predator in the Western Cape ecosystem. It thus acts as an ‘umbrella species’. By protecting the leopard, one is also helping conserve smaller predators, as well as other animals occurring in the system.

 

Leopard

 

The range of area each leopard needs in order to hunt and live is understandably threatened by development, but also by people who kill them to protect their farm animals. Today there are the Trust focuses on using information on the ecology of these predators to show that killing or relocation of them is not a solution to conflict situation. Some mitigating measure can be used such as livestock guardian dogs (like Anatolian shepherd dogs) and especially herders. The Trust currently has an experimental farm where they themselves are testing farming with herders and dogs while monitoring the behaviour of the predators (leopards, caracals and jackals) in the same area.

There are the added natural threats to the leopard especially when they are young, like snakes, disease, black eagles, malnutrition and, as their territories shrink, vying for territory with one another – sometimes to the death.

Leopards are very different from cheetahs, with whom they are often confused. Spots aside (cheetahs have individual spots whilst leopards have rings of spots called rosettes) leopards stalk their prey and need to get really close to them, when they pounce. In bushveld savanna, leopards then drag their prey up trees, however, in the mountains they have no suitable trees to hoist their prey into – so the generally find a comfy place with a good view to take their time and eat their meal. They are stockier and stronger as a result, whilst cheetahs are leaner and built for speed, chasing their prey over huge distances.

Quinton has shown that male leopards in the Cederberg have home ranges of between 200km2 in the Fynbos and 1000km2 in the Karoo. The Trust’s website suggests that in comparison Kruger National Park (KNP) male leopards have ranges of between 25 and 50km2. This equates to densities being much lower in the Cederberg, as leopards are solitary cats with exclusive home ranges. Males have exclusive ranges, each with 2 – 3 females having their own exclusive ranges within these.

 

Cheetah at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

 

Since 2004, Quinton studied the leopard in the Cederberg to ascertain their population status and vulnerability. He started the Trust and serves as its project manager and major researcher, completing his PhD in 2010 through the University of Bristol. Elizabeth Martins runs the Education and Outreach Programme that the team feels is essential for the future of the cat and nature conservation in general.

The Trust runs children’s camps that teach them about the wilderness and themselves. Via a National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF) grant the Trust provides sponsored camps and day trips to connect children to the wilderness. It also runs local environmental clubs such as the one at Eselbank, a local Cederberg school with whom the Trust actively works, and school presentations during which the Trust inspires children through a 45 minute presentation.

Ongoing leopard research in the Cederberg is, in the meantime, helping in a big way in managing and conserving the leopard population. Quinton has written his PhD on the ecology of leopards in the Cederberg, which gives researchers a reference to use in monitoring the movements of other leopard populations in similar mountainous terrain.

Quinton’s approach has involved modern technology in the form of GPS satellite tracking devices and remote camera traps, which has brought him a little closer to establishing the needs of this unique cat population.

Part of the process has been to capture and collar adult leopards with GPS collars, allowing the Trust to collect data on their movements. This they’ve used to influence how best to manage predator/land owner relationships.

When the project began an average of seven leopards a year died in farmer-predator conflict. In the last seven years, only two have died in this way. Through the work of the Trust, the Cederberg Conservancy has supported leopard conservation and as a result, the Cederberg now has a stable leopard population the Trust can monitor over the long term.

The Trust keeps individual records of the leopards they tag. Most of them now have names. They have become individual cats to the team, not just numbers that form a statistic for science. They’ve identified 27 leopards in the Cederberg study over a six-year period.

Trapping any individual leopard to collar it is not a walk in the park. Traps have to be regularly checked – at least every two – three hours – so placing them way out of the way is counterproductive. At the same time, putting traps close to foot paths used regularly by hikers is also out of the question unless the trails are closed to the public.

The trapping process has been approved by the statutory conservation body and an ethics committee and a capture is always supervised by a vet. And the team test internationally acclaimed trapping techniques, such as the foot-loop traps revamped by American Dairen Simpson. Science has shown that these are the safest traps for large carnivores. The Trust is keen to use where possible, and are keeping records of their safety and efficacy.

If you do walk in the Cederberg and come upon a sign warning you of a leopard trapping in progress, you will be urged not to approach more – please take note and do not go near the traps as this could interfere with their hard work trying to capture these cats for conservation. Sometimes iti takes months to catch a targeted individual.

Of course finding a leopard in a vast and untamed area is anything but a walk in the park. Leopards are shy by nature and will go out of their way to avoid being seen. Very few people sight these wonderful cats at all. Which is why the Trust uses digital cameras with an infra-red sensors triggered by motion and heat.

This they call ‘camera-trapping’ – one can equate them to permanent fieldworkers – and it gives the team a good indication of the numbers of nocturnal leopards – a non-invasive and affordable option to capture. If two cameras are arranged at what’s called a ‘double station’ – two cameras opposite one another – one is able to put together individual leopard identikits with photos of both the left and right flank of any individual cat.

 

leopard

Useful Links

The Trust is also involved in projects in Gouritz, the Boland mountains and Namaqualand.

Get Involved

If you want to get involved in the project there are a number of ways: you can raise awareness by buying (and wearing) a rather cool, hemp Cape Leopard Trust T-shirt, you can sponsor a camera trap, you can Adopt a Spot or if you are an organisation you can sponsor a school camp for disadvantaged children. Soon, leopard tracking trips in the Cederberg will become available to the hiking fit public.

The team is happy to do presentations for any group, and they do school presentations at no charge.

Get in Touch

Email Elizabeth Martins on elizabeth @ capeleopard.org.za or visit the website at http://www.capeleopard.org.za

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