Cape Leopard Trust Human Wildlife Conflict Case Study

Where leopards come into conflict with farmers by killing livestock, at least three outcomes present themselves: (i) the farmer wants the leopard killed; (ii) the farmer wants the leopard removed from his property, but not killed and (iii) the farmer does not mind having the leopard on his property.

Our predator research attempts to understand the ecology of these animals in order to mitigate the conflict in question. Understanding predator movement, behaviour, diet preferences and activity can give us insight into how to manage potential conflict situations. The results we present may not represent every case, however, good scientific method will show that these results are a good representation of what these animals do, and are not “thumb-suck” anecdotes. It is important for us to publish these data in local or international peer-reviewed scientific journals in order to validate our work.

Once a depredation event has taken place, and a farmer has suffered livestock losses, the big question is: What do we do with this damage causing animal?

We have provided practical examples from one of our study areas that clearly illustrate the case:

In the Cederberg, our most studied territorial male leopard, M1, had been tracked for over 4 years. He had a massive home range of over 1000km2. That is a perimeter boundary of about 250km! As a solitary predator, his main mission in life was to keep that area and the females that occur there to himself. That would be accomplished by constantly marking and patrolling his territory actively.

Were M1 were to be (1) killed or (2) relocated, this is what our scientific research suggests would most likely happen. Just to emphasise the premise of this case study can be applied to leopard, caracal and jackal:

1. After some time (about 1 month or so), M1’s scent markings (urine and faeces) would no longer be effective. With no scent warning intruders off, one or more young adult dispersal males, or (as in several well documented cases in the Cederberg), a dominant neighbouring territorial leopard, would actively penetrate M1’s former area in a move to inhabit it (we have excellent data to show this). What does this mean? Well, let’s say only one dispersing animal moves in soon after. He is inexperienced and may occupy only a portion of the 1000km2 home range. Another male takes up another portion of M1’s former range and the neighbouring dominant male takes up the balance. So, whereas the farmer(s) in the area only had one predator to contend with in M1, they now have potentially three new leopards to deal with. These “new” arrivals are unfamiliar with the natural prey base and may easily cause even more damage than the previous animal, as they are unfamiliar and opportunistic. Until (and only “if”) the system eventually equilibrates back to a single dominant male, the farmer is still effectively back to square one with a predator potentially liable to kill his stock at any time. Unless he devises alternative protection strategies for his stock of course! 

Well that’s the practical implication of removing a predator as far as stock losses are concerned. From a predator ecology point of view, these new “immigrants” would cause further instability by trying to eradicate any past signs of the dominant male M1 – i.e. by killing his cubs. So our research supports the notion that farmers should be wary of eradicating or moving any predator – especially dominant animals –as the repercussions can be even worse. The simple message is therefore – manage livestock and conserve the prey base, so that predators have wild (natural) prey to feed on! One of the most effective ways to achieve this is, for example, to deploy a herder together with a livestock guardian dog and andremoving all traps.

2. Relocation – well – the same scenario applies as the above if a predator is removed and relocated from his home range. But firstly what to do with him? The problem is that relocating him has twice the implications! If every farmer (or even a few) in the Western Cape had an adult territorial animal causing problems – relocating them each time they were caught would simply amount to shuffling the problems around with a compounding effect. Dropping “so-called” problem animals into other stable ecological units simply creates new problems on other people’s doorsteps. For example, a dominant leopard will force himself upon the new system, killing cubs he finds and fighting with resident animals - possibly even en route back to his old home range. It is easy to envisage the ecological carnage. The end result – more damage than if you left him alone in the first place. Relocations of adult leopard and caracal in particular is a highly contentious issue. While it appears on face value to be “sensible” solution, the science does not support this and our research suggests that relocations are an ecological nightmare, and can thus not be justified as a practical management tool. Many predator experts agree that in most cases relocations are a knee-jerk reaction based on saving an individual, causing social disruptions - rather than looking holistically at conserving a population.

This has been a “hypothetical example” using M1 to demonstrate what we mean. We have, however, had several clear examples of this happening where it is supported by irrefutable scientific data; for example:

(i) M3 was collared and tracked for over 2 years. He died of natural causes and was replaced by M11. Before his death he sired a cub born to F10. M11 took over 60% of M3’s territory; the rest taken over by the other neighbour, M6. A few months before, M11 killed and ate M3’s young male cub. We found the remains of another sub-adult leopard eaten by a leopard in M6’s new area (part of M3’s range). The moral of the story – relocate and one will have severe negative effects on a system.

(ii) M8, a territorial male leopard contiguous to male M:. M8 was killed by a farmer in a gin trap in March 2007. Prior to his death, there was no overlapping of their home ranges. One week after M8’s death, M9 spent 10 days patrolling the border between the two. Three weeks after the death of M8, M9 entered the adjacent, now vacant territory and took over the entire area. We have no information on any cubs in that area, but it is quite possible they would have been killed by M9 if there were any.

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