A window of opportunity presented itself in the last week of August for Quinton to arrange 6 weeks of leopard trapping in the Cederberg and Malawi. The focus of the first 4 weeks was to trap 3 leopards in the Cederberg, followed by 2 weeks in Majete Game Reserve in Malawi where 3 collared leopards needed to be captured.
Cederberg trapping with Jeff Sikich
The three leopards targeted in the Cederberg were M18, a large male in the northern Cederberg, F9, a collared female in the north and F10 (Spot) a collared female in the south. Quinton called on the Cape Leopard Trust's Capture for Conservation collaborator, Jeff Sikich, to assist. Jeff is a US biologist and specialist trapper working on mountain lions for the National Parks services in California. For the first week Quinton was alone and heavy weather hampered trapping opportunities with floods and snow - traps were closed as a result, leaving only 3 weeks for the two, along with the accompanying volunteers doing trap monitoring, to successfully get the three cats. Bushmanskloof Wilderness Reserve contributed towards 2 Iridium GPS collars able to transmit data via satellite to our computers. The female collar is the lightest of its kind in the world.
Trapping in the Cederberg is by no means an easy task. Traps are mostly off the beaten track and have to be hiked to. The Cape Leopard Trust has successfully been using foot-loop or foot-snares for 3 years now after receiving extensive training from US trapping experts. Amazingly we have been 100% effective in only capturing target species - leopards - and have not had to remove any other species from our traps in this time. Although highly effective, selective and safe, this trapping technique requires considerable skill and dedication needing to be monitored around the clock with maximum of 3-hourly checks. Usually checks are done every 2 hours at night and more often during the day. Sleep is a luxury and days are spent mostly on your knees, hunched over, setting traps in the ground - back-breaking work. Each trap can take up to a half a day to set.
Incredibly, we were rewarded with three leopard captures during this 3 week period. It started with a female leopard F16 (Crystal) at Bushmanskloof. She was trapped and collared with the new lightweight Iridium collar and was in perfect condition. It turned out she was also pregnant and that we would soon have an ideal opportunity to document our second litter of cubs - the first being Spot's cubs monitored in 2010. Next to be trapped was the large male M18. From the camera trap photographs he looked big and had a similar coat pattern to leopards we had identified in the Northern Cape. Nothing prepared us for the reality however - weighing in at 57.5kg he was a real brute - at least 20kg heavier than the current average for males in the Cape mountains, and 10 kg heavier than the largest cat accurately recorded in the area. He too was successfully collared to be monitored. Finally, a younger male leopard was caught in a trap targeting Spot. He was released with a temporary collar which has since been released. Concern has grown as to Spot's whereabouts and camera traps have been set to try document her presence, but it is possible she is no longer alive or has possibly been pushed out of the area. More bad news was we had to close traps to capture and remove the collar from F9 avoiding the possibility of the big brute M18 being trapped again. Even far worse though, Crystal's Iridium satellite communication system failed 5 days after her capture. Disaster! We will try and track her using a radio unit to remotely drop-off the collar, but efforts to track and monitor cubs have been thwarted once again. I don't think anyone can understand the sense of frustration as much as the researchers - the collar investment (~R35,000/collar), sleepless nights trapping and monitoring, long days when no cats are caught, concluding with the tremendous efforts by the veterinarians on call to assist us with the captures. Priceless...
For the Cederberg trapping, we would like to thank Jeff for coming out and assisting - he has been brilliant helping our Capture for Conservation project and we hope to secure finance to fund other exciting projects around the world; Dr Marc Walton and Dr Johanni Pieterse, our vets who assisted on the captures - the most enthusiastic and dedicated practitioners you will find; Bushmanskloof for their sponsorship and hospitality; Regardt Boshoff (Bushmankloof) for his tireless assistance; the team at Driehoek and Alpha Excelsior for assisting and donating accommodation for the team during their stay - thanks for looking after the guys so well; Patrick Lane from Cape Nature; the surrounding landowners and Cape Nature for their support of our work; and last but not least, the trap monitors, Jurg Studer, David Knott (a CLT Trustee), Stellenbosch students (all who assisted) and Hanlo Fouche, without whom safe trapping would not be possible.
Malawi Mission Impossible
A couple of days after the last traps were pulled in the Cederberg; Quinton flew up to Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, a jewel of African bushveld rehabilitated and very well managed by Africa Parks (http://www.african-parks.org/). His mission was to recapture 3 leopards (2 males and 1 female) who needed their GPS collars removed due to concerns of the animals growth causing collar constriction. It was clearly important to make every effort to get these cats, but time was very limited. Although the GPS components had failed over time since the cats were introduced into the reserve, their VHF transmitters still worked, so there was a chance to track the animal and get close improving overall chances of capture. On day 1 of the capture, Mr Moyo (Majete Scout) tracked the first male. He was in a good location and Quinton set a trap nearby using one of his tricks up his sleeve to attract the collared leopard. Fortuitously things went as planned and they got their first cat 3 hours later - a magnificent 56kg male. They were off to a good start! Another good sign was that the collar had in fact not been too tight after all, but it was successfully removed and the enigmatic cat wobbled off into the night with the likelihood of a bit of a hang-over from his drug experience, but none the worse for wear.
The following day almost saw the female caught. However, that near miss encounter led to 10 more days of very hard work trying to get her. The team were focussing fully on her as the last male had yet to be found, however, she was being extremely wily. Temperatures soared and traps had to be set in the heat of the day when the leopards were resting - the mid-40's were common. Coming from snowy conditions in the Cederberg could not have led to a greater contrast. Eventually the leopard gods favoured the team and Quinton tracked the female into a hilly area where she had made a kill. The team were even able to observe her, and amazingly, also a well-grown cub of about 1 year. The reserve and re-introduction had clearly been good to her. Rushing like mad, traps were set before nightfall on the kill she had made, and a few hours later she was safely captured and her awkward collar removed. The cub had decided discretion was the better part of valour and was nowhere to be seen.
On the second last day we managed to track the final male in the far southern part of this glorious 70,000ha reserve. Dead on their feet, the team set the last traps to try and get this male. However, their luck had run out, and not having had any sleep during the night, Quinton had no choice but to pull the traps at 05h30 to prepare for his trip home. Overall the trip was a major success - in addition to the leopard captures, Quinton managed to catch and collar a male hyaena for the predator study he will be co-supervising with a Conservation Ecology MSc student from Stellenbosch University here next year. On a final note, Quinton had this to say about his Malawi experience:
"Malawi was a truly amazing experience! Majete is one of the most stunning areas of bushveld - stunning broadleaf and miombo woodland interspersed with giant baobabs, great birding, a good mammal population and fantastic staff. The team I worked with including the two Stellenbosch post-graduate students, under the supervision of Dr Alison Leslie, were incredible. No work demands or working hours were too much for them and their enthusiasm never waned till the very end. African Parks should be congratulated for their conservation efforts in this area. A special thanks to Patricio Ndadzela, Craig Hays, Mr Moyo, Mr Sewedi (Head of Law Enforcement, Dept Wildlife & National Parks), Colin Tucker and Kate Spies for their efforts and hospitality. Thank you to Dr Alison Leslie for helping to make this trip happen and finally to acknowledge Dr Anthony Hall-Martin who, without his leadership the leopards and indeed Majete would not have been where it is. I look forward to sipping a "green" in the late afternoon sunlight at Majete again next year."
If you are ever thinking of visiting the area, visit the African Parks website and look at staying at the smart Thawale Lodge or their community campsite: http://www.african-parks.org/Park_1_3_Accommodation.html