Studying the diet (prey composition and preference) of an apex predator such as the leopard is important to safeguard the species’ continued survival. We can study diet using two different, complementary methods. The first is laboratory analyses of leopard scat, and the second is called GPS cluster analysis.
One of the most commonly used methods to characterise carnivore diet is through faecal analysis. This method is cost-effective, non-invasive, and ideal to investigate and monitor diet composition of leopards in the Fynbos, where leopard densities are comparatively low and the rugged terrain, dense vegetation and elusive, nocturnal nature of the study animal make direct observations and locating feeding sites impossible.
Leopards ingest the bones, hoofs, claws, foot pads, quills, nails, teeth and even horns of their prey, and these macroscopic remains in the scat can be telltale of what the prey item was. However, a lot of hair also passes through the gut and is deposited in the scat. Since mammal hair have distinctive cross-sectional shapes and unique scale patterns on the cuticle (or outer layer), it is possible to identify a species from its hair with a microscope and a comparative hair reference collection. By identifying the hair and other fragments found in the collected scats to species level, the prey composition and preference of leopards can be investigated.
Leopard scats are thus collected for dietary analyses, but since the scats serve as territorial markers, care is taken to collect only half the scat. Leopard scats have been collected opportunistically since 2004 throughout the CLT study areas.
GPS cluster analysis
The second method for studying diet can only be employed when some animals have been fitted with GPS collars. The collars have a GPS device that records and stores the animal’s point location via satellite. When a leopard makes a kill, it stays in the immediate vicinity for a few days until it has finished eating (the duration is determined by the size of the prey item), and therefore these feeding sites show up as a cluster of points when visualising the GPS data on a map. The clusters representing 12 or more continuous hours are identified and can then be located by navigating to a certain GPS location – and this is arguably one of the toughest (and most fun!) parts of leopard research in the fynbos… It is rough going, with the researchers more often than not ending up on all fours, literally leopard-crawling through an impenetrable wall of prickly, sticky vegetation, searching for remains such as hair, gut, bones and leopard scat. Since Cape leopard prey is mostly relatively small, the leopards tend to entirely consume their prey, leaving only a few slivers of bone, the stomach contents and some hair or quills.
What do leopards in the Cape mountains eat?
Leopards are opportunistic and versatile hunters and prey on species ranging from crickets, lizards and rodents, to hares, porcupine and even ungulates as large as eland. Typically, they appear to take prey in proportion to availability in a given area.
In the Boland, Cederberg and Little Karoo, diet studies employing the two methods explained above, indicate that klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus) and rock hyrax/klipdassie (Procavia capensis) are the main prey species for leopards. Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) and Cape grysbok (Raphicerus melanotis) are also prominent components of leopard diet in the Boland.