Dr Quintin Martins, the founder of the Cape Leopard Trust, peers through his binoculars across the valley where he discovered his first Cape mountain leopard. He is perched on a rock in the 6?000 hectare Bakkrans Nature Reserve, a wilderness area in the heart of the Rooi Cederberg Karoo Park in the Western Cape highlands.
As he directs his gaze towards a group of mountain zebra slowly traversing the valley’s edge he talks about his first sighting of the cat, in 2004, and the mountains that have become his family’s home since that memorable moment. “Seeing my first leopard was amazing. It took me a year of hiking and doing surveys in the Cederberg before I got to see my first Cape mountain leopard in the wild. It was incredible knowing I had been so close to them so many times, imagining them watching me but me not seeing them.”
Eleven years later, after years of toiling for funds and support, the Cape Leopard Trust is part of a contingent producing and documenting the South African Mint’s series of Natura coins dedicated to the country’s wildlife. The sound of a coin being forged echoes through the mountains. A soft thud, the spin of a wheel and the slide of metal. A soft thud, the spin of a wheel and the slide of metal. We head up the slope to get a closer look. A very large, very strong man wields a wrought iron coin press beneath an overhang of the blood red rock that the Cederberg is famous for.
With him is a crew of bodyguards and cameramen. Martin’s research aims to conserve the fragile ecosystem in which the cats live. The trust’s 12-member team carries out research on the leopard’s natural territory and works to deflect threats to their survival. These threats include farmers angered by livestock losses, increasing human encroachment and a general misunderstanding about the leopard’s predatory behaviour. The trust “aims to further our understanding of leopard ecology and behaviour, and to reduce human-animal conflict” (capeleopard.org.za).
Martins says: “Cape leopards are unique for their golden colour and are significantly smaller than leopards one would find in the bushveld. They are about half the mass. A female Cape leopard weighs only about 21kg and males about 34kg – compared to males up north weighing between 65 and 85kg. Mountain leopards in the fynbos also appear to have black noses, even when they are young, whereas other leopards have a lot of pink on their nose, getting darker with age.”
The cats live in mountainous areas and prefer rocky slopes or vegetated riverine areas, rather than open, flat areas, according to the trust’s website. A male’s home range in fynbos averages 250km and that of a female is 120km. Leopards are solitary and move in “a sexually exclusive territory” and “finding a new place to sleep as they move through their range.
The trust “guesstimates” there are 1?000 Cape mountain leopards and about 35 resident adult leopards in the greater Cederberg area.The Cape mountain leopard is now part of the Mint’s sought-after Natura series that includes the meerkat, the African wild dog (also called the Cape hunting dog or painted wolf) and the zebra. The one-ounce 24-carat coins are minted on a 100-year-old coin press at Martins’s first leopard capture site. The scene is reminiscent of a Voortrekker diorama as these burly men are thrown into silhouette by the sun that sinks in a pink haze behind the mountains.
The process follows a tradition that dates back to 1902 when the first veldponde (veld pounds) were minted near Pilgrim’s Rest in Mpumalanga. The leopard coins arrived in the Cederberg imprinted with the bas-relief designed by Thinus Scheepers, who works at the Mint. The crew standing around the field press jokingly call him Oom Paul. Scheepers’s resemblance to the man on the Krugerrands is uncanny.
He wears gloves to remove the coins from the press and places them in plastic containers. A fingerprint could tarnish their surface. “It [the leopard coin] is part of the next series of coins we’re producing that feature nocturnal hunters. “Working on this design was really special for me because I connect more with the dark than I do with light, so it was nice to connect with the grace and mystery of the leopard,” says Scheepers. “I hope people will notice it when they see the coins.”
The Hemelhuijs restaurant in Cape Town’s De Waterkant neighbourhood was the site for the launch of the leopard coins. The Cederberg’s indigenous culinary ingredients inspired the menu for the occasion, held in mid-September. Hemelhuijs’s owner, chef, designer and all-round conceptual artist Jacques Erasmus created the menu. Erasmus has an endless list of creations, but the leopard challenge was ambitious, even for him. On the evening of the launch a tall sculpture of a leopard overlooked the proceedings. In true Erasmus style, it featured his signature unique construction. The sculpture was built of burnt toast and 24-carat gold.
He explains: “I have done larger works – mosaics and installations with food materials, but toast is something that I never really expected. One morning, while working in the Hemelhuijs kitchen, I smelt toast burning and told the crew not to throw it away. I began playing later that evening and discovered the patterns and textures you could carve into burnt toast.”
The leopard project celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and the calendar of numerous events aims to secure the initiative’s feasibility for at least another decade. Martins says of his hopes for the future: “I feel the foundation has been laid for the project to continue to grow and prosper, having an increasingly marked positive impact on our environment. I hope that the environmental education project gets the support it needs to develop this vital component of the project. I believe education and outreach to be the most important part of what we need to do – making people aware of the importance of a healthy environment and connecting them to nature.
“Last, I hope that the team remain as dedicated and passionate as I have known them to be, maintaining the integrity the project is recognised for.” Through a mixture of community development, school education initiatives and private partnerships the Cape Leopard Trust has been able to expand its operation into other areas in the Western Cape. The project now includes: the Boland project that extends from the Groot Winterhoek Mountains to the Overstrand coast at Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond, the Gouritz project in the Gamkaberg, Rooiberg and Swartberg Mountains of the Little Karoo near Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn, the Karoo Peace Project that deals with predator ecology and human/animal conflict and co-existence, and the new leopard den in the Table Mountain National Park.
Martins leaves the Cederberg at the end of the month to join a snow leopard research group in the United States. “The time has come for me to take on a new challenge in my life. My wife Elizabeth and I will be moving to California where I will be joining the Snow Leopard Conservancy and begin working with pioneer snow leopard researcher and conservationist Dr Rodney Jackson,” says Martins. “I see this as an incredible opportunity to have a more profound conservation impact but I will remain involved with the Cape Leopard Trust as trustee and nonexecutive director, contributing to my vision of connecting mountain cat conservation across the globe.”