The CLT Boland project is a field study of the Cape leopard population in the Boland Mountains. This study aims to establish the first rigorous population estimates for leopards in this region, and to identify possible conflict hotspots. The ultimate objectives of the research are to:
- obtain baseline data necessary for ensuring the survival of leopards in the Cape mountains;
- alleviate leopard-farmer conflict;
- establish the presence/absence/relative abundance of resident mammal populations.
Valuable baseline data on a wide variety of mammal species will contribute to a better understanding of the Boland ecosystem, ensuring better insight into future management of this unique area. All data will be fed into the CapeNature State of Biodiversity (SOB) database, as well as the University of Cape Towns Animal Demography Unit (ADU), and will be submitted to peer-reviewed scientific journals for publication.
How do you find such a secretive animal in such a vast and untamed area?
The short and general answer is: You dont! Cape Leopards are notoriously shy and elusive; extremely few people have been lucky enough to see one and when they do it is usually only a short glimpse. Fortunately, there is a solution digital cameras, containing an infrared sensor triggered by motion and heat (referred to as a camera trap). Camera-trapping has proved to be a very effective way of estimating the numbers of elusive and nocturnal animals such as large carnivores (e.g. tigers in India). It is a non-invasive and comparatively affordable option, since it does not require the capture, handling, or immobilisation of animals.
Photographs of leopards are an exceptionally useful tool, since each leopard has a distinctive spot pattern almost like our fingerprints by which it can be identified. Camera traps can be deployed singly, but ideally a camera station should consist of two cameras opposite each other. Such double stations are used to compile leopard identikits photos of both an individuals left and right flanks which are crucial in estimating the number of individuals in an area.
An added advantage of the camera traps is that they are like permanent fieldworkers, working day and night, in rain or sunshine. They are non-selective, capturing everything that moves, and this provides the ideal opportunity to also gather data on other mammals. These photos give us information about prey availability, and forms part of an exciting collaboration with the the University of Cape Towns Animal Demography Unit (http://adu.org.za) namely a Virtual Mammal Museum (very similar to the reptile and butterfly atlassing projects, SARCA and SABCA). When launched, members of the public will be able to act as citizen scientists, uploading mammal photographs directly onto the web, thereby creating a huge database with loads of distribution records. Interestingly enough, it can also be that NOT getting a photograph of certain species in areas can be as important as obtaining these pics questions are raised as to why these species are absent.
How do you decide on where to place a camera station?
Choosing the right camera trap site is very important. One must be quite sure that a leopard will pass by the camera at some stage, and because leopards are much more adept at using their rocky habitat than we are, one needs to select a site carefully. Fortunately for us, it seems like most leopards are not too fond of bundu-bashing and will rather take the path of least resistance well-used game trails, hiking trails, quiet jeep tracks, dry watercourses and the bottom of ravines normally prove to be good camera trap locations. There are a number of signs of leopard activity to look out for, and these are also instrumental in selecting camera trap sites.
Pug marks / tracks
Leopard tracks are very distinctive and easily identifiable, although the tracks of smaller females or sub-adult males may be confused with that of caracal.
Scats / droppings
The presence of hooves, claws and large bone fragments is telltale of leopard droppings. The scats are also prone to turning white in the sun because of the calcium content of the bones. Again, leopard scat may be confused with that of caracal, but caracal scats are generally smaller and contain mostly hair if bones are present, the fragments will be relatively small.
Leopards use scats to demarcate and mark their territory, warning other individuals to keep away. Especially the dominant animals therefore tend to defecate in very visible places, often on top of grass tufts and low bushes in the middle of or next to trails and jeep tracks.
Leopards sharpen their nails on tree trunks in the same way house cats do. There are small glands at the base of the leopards nails, the secretion of which is deposited on the bark as it scratches another way of marking their territory.
Leopards have exceptionally strong jaws and are known to eat almost the entire carcass in contrast with caracal that often only eat the softer parts of the body and leaves the large bones. Although not encountered as often as tracks or scats, kill sites like the one below is telltale of leopard activity.
Intensive scouting for these signs is very important to determine the likelihood of a leopard walking past a possible camera trap site, and while looking for these signs, data on the scats and tracks of other mammals are also gathered.
Leopard scats are also collected for dietary analyses. Because it serves as territory markers, care is taken to collect only half the scat. These scats will be used to determine leopard diet in the Boland mountains, comparing this to current studies in the Cederberg, Gamka corridor and Namaqualand uplands. Fresh leopard scats can also be used to conduct molecular studies, although this is not in the scope of the current project.