Lending a helping hand

Jeannie doing VHF telemetry in the Kogelberg
Jeannie doing VHF telemetry in the Kogelberg
Published: 09 June 2014

Non-profit organisations like The Cape Leopard Trust are reliant on the goodwill and support of the public and private sector, and we are indeed fortunate that there are so many people and companies willing to pledge their assistance to a cause that lies close to their hearts.

This was recently highlighted when the Boland team needed help with an aerial tracking flight to find a certain leopard in the Boland mountains. Locating a collared leopard on the ground using VHF telemetry can be very challenging in mountainous regions, because you need to be in line of sight of the signal transmitter (i.e. the collar) in order to pick it up. So if you happen to be driving around on the east side of the mountain and the cat is somewhere on the west side, you will not even know it. Limited road access into the mountains makes it impossible to cover any given collared cat’s entire range, so there is always a chance that you will not be able to find that cat even after a full day’s tracking. To tackle this problem, researchers sometimes need to get up into the air to do aerial tracking. Essentially we need a bird’s eye view. However, the prohibitive cost of hiring a helicopter or small fixed-wing plane, plus finding a qualified pilot who is comfortable with flying low over high mountains with its associated updrafts and turbulence, can make this a challenging option. Fortunately for us there are a number very generous helicopter and private plane owners out there, along with some willing and very proficient pilots and we are much indebted to Johann Swart and his son Theo, as well as Nexus Ag and BASF for sponsoring this particular flight. Thank you very much!

Johann, Theo and the Boland team with the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter that was used for the tracking flight 

Johann, Theo and the Boland team with the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter that was used for the tracking flight

Our journey took us over the Helderberg basin and the Stellenbosch, Jonkershoek, Groot-Drakenstein and Franschhoek mountains. It was an absolute treat to see these majestic mountains from the air, and it gave us a new appreciation for all the creatures that inhabit this landscape, especially the leopards that traverse the steep rocky slopes and high plateaus on a daily basis (view photos in gallery).

Fieldwork in the mountains can be risky, and although many accidents can be prevented by being well prepared, cautious and sensible, there is always the possibility of something unforeseen happening. For this reason it is important to have some form of communication handy, and because many mountainous areas have no cellphone coverage in our case this means carrying a satellite phone. But a sat phone without an annual airtime subscription is useless, so on this note we want to say a special thank you to AST Distribution SA, who recently sponsored an airtime voucher for the Boland Project.

It is only with support like this that we can continue our research and conservation work in the Boland mountains – our sincere appreciation goes out to each and everyone who has made, and continues to make a contribution in any way, big or small. It all makes a huge difference.

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