The Cape Leopard Trust - Small Cats with Big Problems

The Cape Leopard Trust - Small Cats with Big Problems
Published: 25 July 2012

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.

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 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.

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 – visit this page and then hover your mouse over Cederberg leopards.

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.

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

Get Invovled

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. Register for updates on their web­site to be informed as soon as this hap­pens. Click here for more details on how to sponsor.

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


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