The Cape Leopard Trust’s position statement on acceptable trapping techniques for carnivore research

The Cape Leopard Trust’s position statement on acceptable trapping techniques for carnivore research

The Cape Leopard Trust supports trapping only for scientific research purposes and not for the management of predators by any person in his/her private capacity.

The Landmark Foundation has repeatedly claimed that the Cape Leopard Trust uses and promotes the use of inhumane methods to capture leopards and other wildlife. These claims are categorically false and seek only to damage our reputation as a leading conservation and research organisation in the Western Cape. All decisions on acceptable methods for the capture of carnivores for research are made by independent ethics committees that conform to the South African National Standards. Permission to use methods that are approved by an ethics committee is then provided by both provincial and national regulatory bodies. The only trapping that the Cape Leopard Trust supports is for peer-reviewed, scientifically justifiable and ethically sound and approved research.

Trapping for scientific research

Who decides whether it is acceptable to capture a wild animal?
Trapping wild animals for research purposes is an invasive process which carries with it the risk of discomfort, injury and even death to the target animal.  Consequently, all research that requires the live trapping of wild animals is subject to the approval of a SANS (South African National Standards) accredited independent ethics committee. The role of the ethics committee is to assess the potential benefits of trapping (the scientific value of the data obtained from the trapping process) relative to the welfare concerns to the target animal. In addition, permits must be obtained from provincial and national authorities who regulate the management and conservation of wildlife within and outside of protected areas. Both ethics committees and governmental authorities’ make use of national and international ‘best practices’ in addition to local and international experts with relevant experience of particular species and trapping methods, to improve their assessment of applications.

The Cape Leopard Trust has not collared any leopards since 2014. Although we continue to conduct large-scale research projects on the leopards of the Western Cape, we do not believe that the capture and collaring of leopards is necessary to attain our current research objectives. In particular, we believe that the ad-hoc capture and collaring of leopards that are involved in conflict does little to advance the cause of leopard conservation. Research has shown that the opportunistic ‘saving’ of leopards by collaring and relocating individuals involved in conflict usually results in the death of the relocated individual, disruption of the leopard population at both captures and release sites, and an increase in conflict (Athreya et al. 2011, Weilenman et al. 2010). Instead, we have formulated a research strategy that involves understanding the status of leopard populations in the Western Cape, identifying threats to these populations, and devising and implementing targeted conservation actions to eliminate or at least mitigate these threats. A recent analysis of leopard research in South Africa found that the majority of research fails to contribute knowledge that aids in the nationwide conservation of the species (Balme et al 2013). Our research aims to fill this gap in the Western Cape. Although it is possible that the Cape Leopard Trust will resume collaring leopards at some point in the future, this will only be done if there is overwhelming evidence to show that this is essential to leopard conservation in the Western Cape and that there is no other way of obtaining these data. We strongly believe that leopards should only be collared as a last resort, and if so, as part of a well-designed scientific study that can yield robust data to inform practical conservation goals.

Trapping methods

The Cape Leopard Trust has compiled a short overview of three trapping methods that are considered to be examples of ‘best practice’ by both local and international leaders in carnivore research.

NOTE: all Cape Leopard Trust researchers undergo intensive training by a highly skilled professional trapper before they are considered qualified to employ any of the capture methods described below on any research project. This training has come at considerable expense to the Trust but is considered essential to ensure animal safety, which is paramount to The Cape Leopard Trust.

Cage or Box Traps

Cage traps (also called box traps) was the method approved by Bristol University ethics committee that allowed Dr Quinton Martins to trap leopards for research in the Cederberg from 2005 – 2010. Cage traps have the advantage that non-target species or non-target individuals can be released without needing a veterinarian to first anesthetise the individual. This greatly reduces the total time spent in the cage for non-target species. Both leopards and caracals may throw themselves violently against the walls of the cage in an attempt to escape. These actions may lead to deep tissue lacerations and abrasions and broken teeth and claws. These injuries affect hunting success and may even prove fatal. It is possible to modify cages to reduce the probability of animals damaging themselves on the internal surfaces in addition to ensuring that the response time to any animal being captured is minimised (e.g. through telemetry that signals when the door closes) and that researchers and veterinarians are trained in how to approach animals in the cage (if approached head-on the animal may attempt to charge and severely injure itself in the confined space).

When set properly (with modifications to make the cage more target-specific), monitored frequently (using radio transmitters to signal when a trap has been triggered), and ensuring close supervision, purpose-built cage traps still have a place as a trapping method, especially when the situation, terrain or habitat precludes the use of any other method.

Foot loop traps

Firstly, the foot loop traps the Cape Leopard Trust refers to should not be confused with illegally manufactured wire snares used by poachers to catch bushmeat. A foot loop trap is a highly specialised type of trap which uses stainless steel rope to capture an animal by the paw. Foot loop traps are globally regarded as the safest, most humane, and most effective capture technique for large felids (Frank et al. 2003, Gannon et al. 2007, Balme et al. 2007). Foot loop traps have been used for several decades around the world to safely capture and handle large carnivores for research purposes. For example, the very first snow leopards captured for research, and most since then, was caught using foot loop traps. Much of our knowledge of these, and many other secretive large carnivores, including African leopards, would have been impossible to acquire without the careful use of foot loop traps. In Africa, the past decade has seen a significant move away from using cage traps by large carnivore researchers to the use of foot loop traps. This trapping method is promoted by the wildlife capture guidelines of the American Society of Mammalogists, an organisation regarded as a world leader in promoting ethical research standards. All over the world, snow leopards, jaguars, cougars, tigers, lions, cheetahs, bears and wolves are all routinely and safely caught by researchers using this method.

The proper use of foot loop traps minimises the risk of serious injuries typically associated with cages. Foot loop-related injuries are usually only slight soft tissue swelling to the capture paw (which subsides while the cat is being measured and weighed under sedation). Foot loop traps are also highly selective when set properly. In the Cape Leopard Trust research areas, we have found this method to be 100% target specific during the time it was used (2010 – 2014), with no non-target species captured. Target specificity of a trapping method should realistically be over 80% to be considered very good, so this is an exceptional record.

Please note that a foot loop trap is not a neck snare. The Cape Leopard Trust does not use any form of neck snares whatsoever in any of our research.

Soft-catch leg-hold traps or Soft traps

In some cases, neither cage nor foot loop traps may be suitable to trap a target species for research purposes. In such cases, soft-catch leg-hold traps could potentially be used.

Soft-catch leg-hold traps are used safely by researchers around the world (Earle et al 2003; Saffy and de Waal 2010; Boitani and Powell 2012) – and once again the safety lies in the way this tool is used. Current scientific literature shows that appropriate soft traps, if correctly set and monitored, cause comparatively little or no damage to trapped animals provided that they are regularly checked. Regular trap checks are vital, and as with any trapping method, the risk of injury increases with time spent in the trap. Therefore, response time needs to be minimised in order to reduce the risk of injury.

An important distinction should be made between the traditional gin trap and modern soft-catch leg-hold traps. These differ in that gin traps (called slagysters in Afrikaans) have sharp (sometimes serrated) metal jaws causing severe soft-tissue, ligament and bone damage to any captured animal. The Cape Leopard Trust condemns the use of gin traps in the strongest possible terms. On the other hand, true soft traps (such as the Oneida Victor Soft Catch Coil Trap) have offset jaws, thick rubberised pads, weaker springs, double swivels and springs on the chain to avoid muscle, ligament or bone damage. Unlike a gin trap, a human can trigger this specific soft trap with his/her fingers and experience no damage. Thus, although soft traps are not necessarily entirely target-specific, non-target species caught in soft traps can generally be released unharmed. 

NOTE: The Cape Leopard Trust does NOT consider the Schneekluth ‘Terminator’ leghold trap as a soft trap. These Schneekluth ‘Terminator’ leghold traps are still able to maim and severely injure the trapped animal as it does not have rubberised padding and the jaws snap shut with too much force (i.e. spring tension is too high). The Cape Leopard Trust does not support or condone the use of the Schneekluth ‘Terminator’ leghold traps for any purpose whatsoever.

Selected references from the scientific literature that employed the methods described above

Athreya V, Odden M, Linnell JDC, Karanth KU. 2011. Translocation as a Tool for Mitigating Conflict with Leopards in Human-Dominated Landscapes of India. Conservation Biology 25: 133–141.

Balme G., Hunter L. & Slotow R. 2007. Feeding habitat selection by hunting leopards Pantera pardus in a woodland savanna: prey catchability versus abundance. Animal Behaviour, 74, 589-598.

Balme, Guy & Lindsey, P & Swanepoel, Lourens & Hunter, Luke. 2014. Failure of Research to Address the Rangewide Conservation Needs of Large Carnivores: Leopards in South Africa as a Case Study. Conservation Letters. 7. 3-11.

Boitani L, Powell RA. 2012. Carnivore ecology and conservation: A handbook of techniques. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Earle R.D., Lunning D.M., Tuovila V.R., Shivik J.A. 2003. Evaluating injury mitigation and performance of #3 Victor Soft Catch® traps to restrain bobcats. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 31, 617-629.

Frank, L., Simpson, D. & Woodroffe, R. 2003. Foot snares: an effective method for capturing African lions. Wildlife Society Bulletin 31: 309-314.

Gannon, W.L., Sikes, R.S. and the Animal Care and Use Committee of the American Society of Mammalogists. 2007. Guidelines of the American society of mammalogists for the use of wild mammals in research. Journal of Mammalogy 88: 809-823.

Goodrich JM, Kerley LL, Schleyer BO, Miquelle DG, Quigley KS, Smirnov EN, Nikolaev IG, Quigley HB, Hornocker MG. 2001. Capture and chemical anesthesia of Amur tigers. Wildlife Society Bulletin 29: 533–542.

Kolbe JA, Squires JR, Parker TW. 2003. An effective box trap for capturing lynx. Wildlife Society Bulletin 31: 980-985.

Logan, K.A., Sweanor, L.L, Smith, J.F. & Hornocker, M.G. 1999. Capturing pumas with foot-hold snares. Wildlife Society Bulletin 27: 201-208.

McCarthy TM, Fuller TK, Munkhtsog B. 2005. Movements and activities of snow leopards in Southwestern Mongolia. Biological Conservation 124: 527-537.

Novak M. 1981. The foot-snare and the leg-hold traps: a comparison. Proceedings of the Worldwide Furbearer Conference 3: 1671-1685.

Olsen G.H., Linscombe R.G., Wright V.L. & Holmes R.A. (1988) Reducing injuries to terrestrial furbearers by using padded foothold traps. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 16, 303-307.

Phillips RL, Gruver KS. 1996. Performance of the Paws-I-Trip™ pan tension device on 3 types of traps. Wildlife Society Bulletin 24: 119-122.

Pitman, R.T., Swanepoel, L.H. & Ramsay, P.M. 2012. Predictive modelling of leopard predation using contextual Global Positioning System cluster analysis. Journal of Zoology 288: 222–230.

Preuss TS, Gehring TM. 2007. Landscape analysis of bobcat habitat in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Journal of Wildlife Management 71: 2699-2706.

Saffy Q, de Waal HO. 2010. A review and summary of recent published research on the use of modified foothold or leghold traps. African Large Predator Research Unit, Occasional Paper, November 2010

Thornton DH, Sunquist ME, Main MB. 2004. Ecological separation within newly sympatric populations of coyotes and bobcats in south-central Florida. Journal of Mammalogy, 85, 973-982.

Turkowski FJ, Armistead AR, Linhart SB. 1984. Selectivity and effectiveness of pan tension devices for coyote foothold traps. Journal of Wildlife Management 48: 700-708.

Weilenmann, M., Gusset, M., Mills, D. R., Gabanapelo, T., and Schiess-Meier, M. (2010). Is translocation of stock-raiding leopards into a protected area with resident conspecifics an effective management tool? Wildlife Research 37, 702–707.

Acceptable trapping techniques

icon no trap The Cape Leopard Trust’s position statement on acceptable trapping techniques for carnivore research

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