Introducing the Tale of Two Leopards at the Tip of Africa

Published: 21 June 2021

In the Western Cape, and across South Africa, the challenges to conservation are complex. To effectively address these challenges, conservation efforts need to be multi-dimensional, involve diverse role players, and span land-use types. It is this holistic approach to conservation that inspired an exciting new collaboration between the Cape Leopard Trust (CLT) and Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). “The Tale of Two Leopards” is a multifaceted partnership project which will focus on two iconic species in the Overberg region – the leopard and the Western Leopard Toad.

Why cats and toads?

Leopards (Panthera pardus) have survived across the landscapes of the Cape where other large carnivores have not. They continue to be simultaneously admired and persecuted. Across their range in Africa, suitable habitats are shrinking and landscapes fragmenting. Leopards in the Cape are physically smaller than their savannah cousins, and research has revealed they have territories up to ten times larger. Because this need for space necessitates movement across human landscapes, it possibly makes this the most threatened leopard population in southern Africa. A priority therefore is to keep critical landscapes protected and corridors open to them. As apex predators, leopards in the Cape play a crucial ‘top down’ role in maintaining a natural balance in the ecosystem.

Similarly, the Western Leopard Toad (Sclerophrys pantherina), an endangered amphibian species that has existed for millions of years in the region, must navigate modified landscapes during its annual migrations between breeding and over-wintering sites. Named for its striking resemblance to a leopard, the species exists only in a very small area of the Western Cape, with one population on the Cape Peninsula and another in the Overstrand towards the westernmost part of Agulhas National Park. Like the leopard, they too represent a remnant population, that has adapted to surviving in an otherwise rapidly changing urban and agricultural landscape. The significance of frogs is their indispensable value as indicator species. Amphibians require healthy freshwater and connected landscapes to exist, so current population declines are a red flag in terms of the health of our ecosystems.

The presence of these two iconic ‘leopards’ in the Overberg gives us the opportunity to look at landscape resilience through an ecological lens. The leopard is an umbrella species and ‘top down’ indicator of ecosystem health, and the leopard toad is the foundation level or ‘bottom up’ counter measure of ecosystem health. Both species thus act as flagships for the viability of a large range of other species. As such, these key species can be used to support the integrity of the area’s biodiversity by acting as important indicators of climate change, habitat integrity and landscape connectivity.

Project goals and area of interest

The Tale of Two Leopards project consists of research, conservation, and community outreach components. Our main goals are:

a) to improve knowledge on the ecology, presence, and threats for leopards and Western Leopard toads in the Overberg region.
b) to identify actionable interventions to protect threatened and endangered species in the Overberg and improve landscape resilience.
c) to educate and support local communities to become conservation stewards.

The study area incorporates a section of shared habitat for both species and extends along the Agulhas plain coastal belt, from the Bot River estuary in the west to the western boundary of the De Hoop Nature Reserve in the east.

Desired long-term outcome

The CLT and EWT are very excited about this partnership and the scope for future collaboration. We view this project as a synergistic platform where the eventual outcome will be more significant than what we can achieve individually. There is an established and respected network of environmental NGOs in the Overberg with whom we are already collaborating, and these partnerships will have great potential in terms of declaring a biodiversity corridor of national importance and improving climate change resilience within this landscape.

Next steps

The CLT research team is currently in the Overberg on a reconnaissance mission, scouting locations and preparing sites for a large-scale leopard camera survey. The EWT Threatened Amphibian Programme team has also already started fieldwork with regular field visits to locate Western Leopard Toad presence points.

Watch this space for future updates on our progress and new developments on the project!