When the cat’s away the mice will play: News from the Boland

When the cat’s away the mice will play: News from the Boland
Published: 20 July 2017

A familiar old idiom relevant also in ecology – when predators are removed from a system the herbivores soon ‘run rampant’ without the top-down control. And without the proverbial mice? Well…the cats would dwindle… In ecology, this type of bottom-up control often becomes evident with a loss of habitat and prey – soon after the predators also vanish without a sustainable food source.

In 2016 the global threat status of leopard (Panthera pardus) was up-scaled from near threatened to vulnerable on the IUCN Red Data List. Leopards have a wide global range and are locally common in some parts of Africa and tropical Asia, however, research published last year in PeerJ highlights that their population numbers and distribution are drastically decreasing in large parts of their range due to habitat loss and fragmentation, hunting for the skin trade and conflict with humans.

There is an urgent need in South Africa for applied research on leopards outside protected areas. Leopard in Southern Africa suffered a dramatic loss in range (28-51%) in the last 250years and their numbers also declined. The primary drivers are loss and fragmentation of suitable habitat, depletion of natural prey and direct persecution by humans. Furthermore, only 20% of South Africa’s are is suitable leopard habitat and only an estimated 32% of that suitable habitat is formally protected.

Long-time followers and supporters of the Cape Leopard Trust will by now be familiar with the CLT’s Boland Project. The Boland study area overlaps with the UNESCO CapeWinelands and Kogelberg Biosphere Reserves and covers more than 2000km 2 of MountainFynbos habitat from north of Bainskloof, along the Cape Fold Mountain range southward to the coast at Kleinmond and Betty’s Bay. This seemingly untamed mountain wilderness is virtually completely surrounded by urban, semi-urban and agricultural land-use and infrastructure, but leopards have managed to persist here, despite growing human pressure, thanks to their adaptability and elusive nature.

The core mountainous habitat in the Boland study area is preserved due to its status as a protected Area, however, edges (or fringe habitat), mostly on private property, are heavily impacted by habitat alteration and growing human peripheral activities. During 2015 and the first half of 2016, following the identification of wire snares as an emerging threat in the Boland, a preliminary investigation was launched to ascertain whether illegal hunting with wire snares (presumably for bush-meat) was a common and widespread phenomenon in the study area. A successful funding application to Wilderness Foundation Forever Wild in 2016 enabled us to further pursue the research as part of their Leopard Conservation Initiative.

We have since broadened the scope of the research to include additional anthropogenic threat categories relevant to leopard in the study area, in our data collection and analyses.Illegal hunting with wire snares addresses merely one aspect of prey depletion in the focal study area. Making the effort of data collection through interview questionnaires presents us with the ideal opportunity to include additional aspects of prey depletion, i.e. legal undocumented mammal (prey) off-take (eg. in the form of damage-causing animal control);utilisation of Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK) to look at perceived changes in mammal abundance and distribution; documenting numbers and distribution of feral domestic dogs(exerting pressure on prey base through predation).

We have recruited two tertiary students from Stellenbosch University and the Boland team is now assisting in the supervision of these students’ research. Brittany Schultz is enrolled for an MSc degree with the Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology under the supervision of Dr. Alison Leslie. Wian Nieman is enrolled to complete his BSc Honours degree with the Department of Botany & Zoology under the supervision of Prof. Theresa Wossler. Both students are also co-supervised by Rhoda Malgas (lecturer with Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology) whose experience and intimate knowledge of survey methods were integral to the survey design.

Wian and Brittany are currently busy with the data collection phase, gathering information from land managers and labourers to help us understand the threats our beautiful spotted cats face in the twilight zone of their habitat where it’s not always certain who is cat and who is mouse…

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