As usual, there was a stressful period during while we arranged for a vet to come out to dart the leopard. As leopard captures are very infrequent events, we can’t afford to have a vet on permanent standby, and are thus reliant on one of the local vets to assist us at short notice. Fortunately Dr. Willem Burger was able to come out to the capture site very promptly, and darted the leopard.
Although it was obviously a small leopard (even by the standards of leopards in the Western Cape, which tend to be smaller than those in the northern parts of South Africa), I was hopeful that we would still be able to fit it with a tracking collar if it was a female leopard. However, once we had the leopard sedated, we could see that it was actually a young male which only weighed 20kg. This is close to the average size of female leopards in the Cederberg Mountains, but one would expect a male leopard in this area to reach close to double that weight.
It was thus obvious that we could not collar the leopard, coded GM10, which we named ‘Frikkie’. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Frikkie is likely to double in weight over the next two to three years. Adult male leopards tend to develop very thick, muscular necks, and since we need to make sure that the collar can’t be pulled off, it would soon become very tight and ultimately strangle the animal. This is why we only collar adult leopards which have reached adulthood.
Another reason for not collaring Frikkie is that young male leopards often disperse long distances after leaving their mother. Since Frikkie is too young to hold a territory of his own, it is very likely that he will not remain in the area. He will probably continue to move until he finds an ‘empty’ territory in the mountains, or gets big enough to compete with adult male leopards and claim a territory of his own. While it would be fascinating to track him during this period, it would be extremely difficult to recover data from the collar, and there would be no guarantee that we could recapture him again to remove the collar.
However, capturing this leopard was not a waste, as we were able to gather valuable genetic data from him. We also had not photographed Frikkie on any of our camera traps before, but now that we know what he looks like and that he’s a young, dispersing male, we may be able to ‘track’ his movements should we get any photographs of him in the future!
We released Frikkie at the same place where he was captured – within an hour he had moved off into an uncertain future. He will have to live ‘under the radar’ for at least another two years. Hopefully this is not the last that we’ll see of him.