The Cape Leopard Trust - Using research as a tool for conservation & finding solutions to human-wildlife conflict

Gouritz Project Background

The Cape Leopard Trust’s Gouritz project is being conducted in the mountains of the Little Karoo around Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn. The study aims to produce the first estimate of the leopard population in this area, as well as investigating the habitat use and diet of these leopards. The main aims of the project are to:

  • Estimate the local leopard population size and density using a combination of GPS collared leopards and camera trap surveys.
  • Capture and collar leopards to identify key leopard habitat areas, which can be prioritised for future conservation management
  • Determine the average home range size of leopards in the area using GPS collars
  • Identify possible movement corridors between the various ‘core’ leopard habitats in the area (e.g. the Gamkaberg/Rooiberg Mountains, the Swartberg Mountains and the Outeniqua Mountains)
  • Gather data on the diet of the Gouritz leopard population
  • Use camera traps to improve existing knowledge of local biodiversity and to determine the relative abundance of other medium and large mammal species in the area.
  • Work with local landowners and farmers to reduce human-predator conflict and raise awareness of the role of predators in maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem function.

This research is being carried out by Gareth Mann, a Ph.D. student at Rhodes University, who is being supported by the Cape Leopard Trust as well as Aneri Vlok, a B.Tech Nature Conservation student at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (Saasveld). Our work is being carried out in close collaboration with CapeNature, who provide invaluable support to the project. All of the camera trap data feeds into CapeNature’s State of Biodiversity (SOB) database, and thus contributes to formal conservation management and planning.

We have recently set up cage traps to trap and collar leopards; this will allow us to gain valuable information on the ecology of these elusive beasts. The data will form the core of Gareth’s Ph.D. thesis, and will also be written up for publication in peer -reviewed scientific journals.

Are there REALLY leopards in these mountains?

The frequency with which we are asked this question shows just how rare and elusive leopards are in the Gouritz area. To say that they are ‘rarely spotted’ would be a massive understatement! Nevertheless, they are around, and occasionally people are lucky enough to see them. Fortunately we have the advantage of being able to deploy camera traps in the mountains, and have thus been able to photograph leopards frequently. We set up cameras at sites where leopard tracks, scats (dung), scratch marks on trees or (very occasionally) actual sightings have occurred.

Camera traps have proven very effective in surveying large carnivores around the world – successful studies have been conducted on tigers in India and jaguars and ocelots in South America to name a few examples. The traps work by projecting an infra-red beam that acts as a trigger; when something breaks the beam the camera takes a photograph. Camera traps are an extremely useful and relatively inexpensive tool for surveying leopards, but have the added benefit of providing records of the presence of other animals as well.

All leopards have a unique pattern of spots, which we can use to identify different individuals from camera trap photographs. Unfortunately, the two flanks of the leopard are not symmetrical, meaning that we need to get two simultaneous photographs of both sides of the leopard to be able to confidently identify it from either side in future. We use the photographs to develop an identikit for each leopard, allowing us to get a basic idea of their movements by plotting the locations where they are photographed on a map.

Over the past two years, we have identified at least 24 different leopards in the Gouritz area, although it is likely that some of these individuals will have moved out of the area during this time.

How do you trap leopards?

Catching leopards is a tricky business. Not only is it difficult to predict exactly where one is likely to find these elusive beasts, but one must also strike a balance between accessibility and isolation. As it’s necessary to check traps regularly, you don’t really want the site to be too far off the beaten track if possible. Sites with vehicle access are even better, as carrying the extremely heavy cage traps is one of the less pleasant aspects of conducting leopard research! At the same time, it’s important to avoid sites that are too accessible where people are likely to stumble upon and possibly interfere with the traps.

Of course, once a site has been identified, there’s still the delicate process of actually setting up the trap. This involves blocking off potential routes around the trap, ‘decorating’ the trap with vegetation to make it look slightly less alien, and setting up a pathway through the trap to ensure that any leopards venturing inside will definitely trigger the trap. Once this is done, all that one can do is wait and hope, all the while making twice-daily trips to check the traps.

Why are we trapping leopards?

Trapping any wild animal inevitably causes the captured animal a lot of stress, and with that stress comes the risk of injury or even death. Trapping can thus only be justified in circumstances when the information to be gained from research will be of high value, both from an academic and management perspective. Unfortunately, trapping and collaring leopards is the only way in which to gather information about their movements and habitat requirements – information that could prove vital to the future conservation and management of the species. It also allows us to obtain detailed measurements of the size and weight of the leopards, gather genetic material for analysis and estimate the age of the individual. Most importantly, we fit a GPS collar with which we can track the leopards. This is almost impossible to do using traditional methods in the harsh, rocky terrain of the Gouritz area.

Trapping procedures have been approved by the Rhodes University Ethics Committee and CapeNature, and all leopard captures are supervised by a vet. As animal welfare is our prime concern, we do all we can to ensure that our traps are as safe as possible. The vet has the final say on whether to proceed with darting and immobilising any leopards caught in one of our traps.

The Cape Leopard Trust Trapping Techniques

icon no trapShort overview of three trapping methods considered by the Cape Leopard Trust as safe and humane: Cage traps, Foot loop traps or Foot snares, Soft-catch traps, References to relevant scientific literature.

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