Cederberg Project update: May 2018

Cederberg Project update: May 2018
Published: 05 June 2018

The camera trap survey

The year got off to a positive start for us here in the Cederberg, and almost halfway through 2018, we are right in the swing of things! Our 146 cameras, covering an area of 1700km 2, have been out in the field (a very broad term that includes all sorts of valleys, peaks, rocky ridges, escarpments and other hard to reach places) since July 2017 and will remain out until August 2018. Since setting them up, all the cameras have been serviced twice. This entails downloading all the images (one of the most exciting parts of the work), replacing batteries, trimming back any vegetation around the cameras that could cause false triggers, and making sure that the cameras are working correctly (and that the baboons haven’t had too much fun with them).

With the help of our volunteers (Ewan Brennan, Hannes Kok and Barbara Seele) our first five months (July-Nov 2017) of camera trap data have been logged in Excel, this equates to a total of 139 000 images! These photos offer us a glimpse into the secret lives of many of the very elusive creatures that roam the Cederberg mountains, including aardvark, genet, striped polecat, caracal, African Wildcat, badgers, otters, aardwolf, and of course the leopards. From the camera trap data that we have collected so far, we have been able to start with the identification and recording of individual leopards. To date, we have identified 46 different leopards, but this number is only a preliminary result as it may still change over the duration of the survey.

Working with the Community

Another exciting development: with the appointment of Ismail Wambi, our Community Outreach Officer at the end of last year, we have begun with our community project to reduce human–wildlife conflict in the local communities of the Cederberg bordering the Wilderness Area i.e. Heuningvlei, Kleinvlei, Bo & Onder-Martiensrus. These communities have suffered from a number of livestock predation incidents over the last couple of months. The aim of this project is to create awareness and build capacity for improved husbandry practices. We have also recently initiated a “kraal” enforcement project to provide anti-predation guidance to farmers. Fencing materials have been donated by the Dwarsrivier farm (home to Cederberg wines).

This will be used in the coming months to reinforce and strengthen the local livestock kraals (enclosures) in order to protect sheep, goats, and donkeys from predation at night. Meetings between community members, Cape Nature and the Cape Leopard Trust has been held to discuss and plan the implementation of this project. In addition, we have distributed ‘Incident Report’ booklets to local livestock owners so that they can accurately record all livestock losses. This type of community outreach work plays an important role in both understanding the local context of human-wildlife conflict, and in finding long-term sustainable solutions.

Challenges: Fire and Theft

Running a research project of this magnitude in a very remote, mountainous area comes with its fair share of excitement and challenges. We need to make sure that all of our cameras are operating as close to perfect as possible, come rain or shine. Not only does this mean hiking across vast, rugged terrain and up steep (often pathless) rocky mountain slopes, but also in all sorts of weather: from fiercely cold winters with snow and wind to fiery hot, dry summers and everything in between. At the moment, we are fully immersed in the golden light and cool, clear air of autumn, with a few thundershowers here and there, which has brought a sigh of relief after the very hot and dry months.

The nature of our research means that we have learnt to expect the unexpected and to be prepared for all sorts of unanticipated challenges. Over the last few months, apart from camera maintenance, these have included fire and theft. Wildfires being so unpredictable, pose the biggest threat to our cameras. These fires are human or lightning initiated. Summer means we are on high alert and we must ensure that one of us is always on ‘fire-duty’ (there’s no such thing as a weekend, Christmas or a New Year's Eve party in fire season!). At the first sign of a fire, we literally have to drop everything to rush out and rescue our cameras, whatever the time of night or day. This is not always easy with having 146 units spread out all over the Cederberg, sometimes a good day’s hike away from the closest road. Unfortunately, in one of the December fires we lost two of our cameras, which contained six weeks’ worth of data, but since then we have managed to retrieve all cameras that were in danger. We are relieved that the rains have finally started and that the cooler autumn weather has arrived, bringing new life to the moon-like, charred landscapes left by the harsh fires. All of a sudden, green shoots and flowers are appearing everywhere.

It is not only the elements that we face but also other unexpected challenges. In February, we had a case of theft, where two of our cameras were stolen by illegal Buchu harvesters. However, thanks to the help of CapeNature and the police the perpetrators were arrested, and we actually got our cameras back. Never a dull moment out here!

It’s all worth it

Although we’ve had our fair share of trials and tribulations over the last few months with the cameras, it has most definitely all been worth it! It’s hard to explain just how rewarding it is to see all the images that we have collected and to be able to catch an unobtrusive glimpse into the secret lives and journeys of the majestic Cape leopards and other wild creatures that roam the Cederberg mountains.

The insight that we can gain through these images will go a long way to protecting the leopards, their prey and habitat. Because of the good camera technology, we are able to see images of big, powerful male leopards, sometimes with scars from a territorial fight they had with other males, and the healing of these scars over time. We have been treated to images of female leopards with cubs, of courtship rituals, hyrax kills, and many more fascinating animal interactions. All this definitely makes the long hours and hard work worthwhile, and we feel very privileged to be able to do this work out here in the Cederberg.

Acceptable trapping techniques

icon no trap The Cape Leopard Trust’s position statement on acceptable trapping techniques for carnivore research

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