To Catch a Ghost

The southeaster trying its level best to blow all the water out of the sea!
The southeaster trying its level best to blow all the water out of the sea!
Published: 03 May 2013

Cape mountain leopards are extremely elusive and shy, not to mention occurring in very low densities. When telling people that part of our research entails the capture of leopards to fit them with satellite GPS collars, the response is often loaded with envy about this exciting job. Capturing a leopard is certainly a thrilling prospect, but most people don’t realise the amount of behind the scenes time, effort, resources and sheer determination that go into catching such a ghost-like animal.

To start with, a male Cape leopard typically has a territory of anything between 200-600 km2, but in order to capture it, we need for it to step onto a tiny 15 cm2 trigger plate. What are the chances! The traps we use most often for leopards are footloop traps, globally considered the safest and most effective trapping technique for large carnivores and used extensively on leopards, jaguars, snow leopards, lions and tigers. Perhaps some of you saw the recent National Geographic on capturing snow leopards in Afghanistan – well that is a footloop trap. In order for us to use these specially constructed “snares”, a tremendous amount of training is provided to CLT researchers by master trappers from the USA who have perfected this technique. Do not be fooled by anyone telling you a cage or box trap is best – when trained properly, and managed intensively, there is no better research capture method than a footloop trap.

When the leopard we are observing eventually comes round to patrolling its range where our traps are set, everything needs to be just perfect to ensure a successful, safe capture. For this reason traps need to be carefully maintained and checked every evening before they are opened up for the night. Strong wind and rain are the trapper’s mortal enemies, messing up the traps and forcing you to start all over again… Sometimes it seems that the weather gremlins are firmly on the side of the spotted cats, with the relentless southeaster seemingly intent on blowing all the neatly placed stepping sticks and guiding bushes around the trap to pieces…

Another energy-sapping part of trapping is the trap monitoring process. This is essential for safe captures, with traps needing to be monitored every 2-3 hours through the night to ensure a speedy response in the event of a capture. This means that the trapper needs to get up constantly during the night to listen to the trap signals from the special trap transmitters we use. A slow beep means more sleep, but a fast beep means a triggered trap. Ninety-nine percent of the time the beep is slow…

Finally, after weeks, and sometimes months of interrupted sleep, rebuilding traps, and waiting for the incessant wind to die down, a capture happens. You listen to the trap signals and you hear a fast beep – and everything goes into overdrive to make sure that the captured animal is immobilised quickly by the vet on standby and released as soon as possible. The procedure is all completed in a few hours.

We have recently been monitoring a male leopard known as Scott (BM12), the dominant resident male in the Kogelberg area of our study. Over the 3 years since the inception of the Boland Project, we have come to know Scott from many camera trap photos, and even photographs from a birding enthusiast who witnessed a pair of black eagles dive-bombing him near Pringle Bay. We were therefore especially thrilled about the prospect of “meeting him in person”!

scott

A camera trap photo of Scott, with the lights of Grabouw in the background

Our previous attempt to capture him was unsuccessful, having tried for a month with no luck. A week after the traps had been removed we got a camera trap photo of him strolling casually by -  just where the traps had been! Clearly leopard trapping involves skill, patience, and a good stroke of luck. We returned to the same area to try again, and finally, after another few weeks, we got him!

The capture happened just before dawn and at first light Scott was immobilized and fitted with a satellite GPS collar. It was very special to be able to witness this magnificent animal in daylight, as most captures happen in the dead of night. He weighed 37kg, the heaviest of the Boland males thus far. Aging him by means of tooth wear resulted in an estimated age of 7-8 years old. After taking the necessary body measurements and biological samples, he was released with his new tracking collar. Collar data retrieved soon after release show that he has recovered well and has already made his first kill.

measuring scott

weighing scott

Weighing and measuring the captured leopard

We will monitor his movements, using the GPS data to study the effects of landscape fragmentation, human habitation and habitat alteration on leopard ecology and behaviour. The data will contribute to identifying immediate and long-term threats of concern to this iconic species and its habitat.

We are especially grateful to vet, Dr Andrew Gray, for coming out to monitor the well-being of the leopard during the capture, and to the City of Cape Town Steenbras Reserve for providing logistical support throughout the trapping process!

cover photo for left top corner

The beautiful Kogelberg mountains seen from the scenic Clarence Drive

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