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Death of female leopard highlights natural hardships

Published: 04 February 2008

The Cape Leopard Trust (CLT) has lost its first collared female leopard – due to natural causes.

F6 (or “skinny legs” as she was known by children visiting the project) was found dead at the base of a steep cliff in the Cederberg Mountains. It appears she had been hunting on a treacherous slope where she miscalculated a charge, and fell to her death.

Quinton Martins, project manager of the CLT has been tracking this leopard for over 3 years now. After a leopard tracking flight with the Bateleurs, he managed to determine from the GPS collar data that F6 had not moved from an area for some time. “I knew that the collar had either come off or she was dead – I really hoped it was the former” A long hike into this rough terrain provided the dreaded answer.

F6 was collared with a GPS collar on the 31st January 2007. She had previously been monitored with the use of remote infra-red camera traps and tracking on foot. She weighed just over 20kg and two litters of cubs were born while tracking her, with only one female cub surviving – “Katherina” is now approximately 3 and a half yrs old, and has been “allowed” (by her mother) to secure a portion of her mothers home range. Female cubs are sometimes privy to this treatment, whereas it is unheard of for a male cub to be allowed to remain in the same area for any length of time after leaving the mother.

Detailed research into the habits of these extremely elusive creatures has provided fantastic insight into their behaviour – information which is paramount in convincing farmers to avoid killing or removing predators from their properties. Well documented research shows that these leopards in the Western Cape Mountains should be considered as a unique genetic unit– this group of small leopards weigh up to half that of their northern cousins.

Quinton has spent several thousand’s of hours on foot tracking leopards in the Cederberg having only had 6 sightings on un-collared animals. “They have seen me often enough, I am sure of that. There are farmers living in these mountains who have never had the privilege of seeing a leopard in the wild – they really are elusive”
“My first sighting of F6 was one of the most special moments in my life – a moment where this leopard, inhabiting an area where farming had been abandoned for over 12 years and she had almost certainly never encountered a human other than myself, had approached to within 8m of me where I was sitting. I was in the shade of a rock trying to see her after hearing vocalization and will never forget the perplexed look on her face, as if to say “what the hell are you?”

However, Quinton is quick to point out that becoming too emotional about individual animals in desperate need of conservation is “missing the point”.

“Considerable energy and resources are often wasted over an individual animal” he says. There needs to be more focus on leopards on a population level. For example, relocating an adult leopard to “save it” is often a death sentence to this individual – and/or to cubs in the area it is translocated to and/or from.

“You see, the minute you remove a leopard from its area, you create a massive vacuum for another individual to move in. Males won’t tolerate any cubs that are not his, and will try kill them all off. The farmer, who thinks that removing the leopard will help his situation is merely perpetuating the problem that already exists. Livestock management to avoid any depredation of livestock is the only answer to a farmers problems. Also, the relocated leopard may survive in its new environment, but it, in turn, will not tolerate any cubs it finds there as well as trying to displace the already resident animal. Alternatively it might get killed by the resident leopard.

Relocations therefore have complex ramifications in terms of conservation ecology and population dynamics and are therefore a very sensitive thing, Martins explains. “If one really wanted to have a full picture of the effect of relocations – begin a project with two separate leopard populations where adult animals from both populations are monitored. One can then move an animal from one population to the next and see the actual effect. Until then, the science on hand suggests that such interventions are knee jerk reactions to a complex problem.”

Nature will now play its course and soon, we hope another female, maybe Katherina, will take over F6’s range.

Quinton is registered for his PhD through the University of Bristol (U.K.), the subject being: “The ecology of the leopard in the Cederberg Mountains”. There are ten leopards (8 males and 2 females) in the Cederberg that have been collared with GPS transmitters and these are revealing remarkable information on home range and activity patterns.

Acceptable trapping techniques

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

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