By Carolyn H. Devens, 12th October 2019
When people think of leopards they usually imagine a spotted cat up in a tree feasting on its freshly killed prey. They think of the once in a lifetime sighting of the elusive cat on safari in a big National Park or Private Game Reserve. They think of a solitary cat almost as big as a lion weighing up to 90 kg. Well, if you live in the southern part of the Western and Eastern Capes in South Africa, you might instead think about the region’s largest free-roaming predator species that is no bigger than your family’s beloved dog. These cats are not always celebrated and coveted by residents, as they are by tourists on the other side of the country in Kruger National Park. Lots of people that live in leopard habitat in the Cape have no idea that leopards are even there. This is just how the leopards like it!
The other side to the story is that in this region these cats are hated and vilified by landowners whose livelihoods come from raising livestock, or game species such as African buffalo, oryx, wildebeest, springbok and various other antelope species. On these properties, leopards are not welcome and will often be killed if they are caught snooping around. Fences and boundaries are not a guaranteed way to keep leopards in, nor are they a foolproof method to kept them out.
As leopard habitat increasingly disappears to make way for expanding private land ownership focused on agriculture and livestock, the leopard population and individual leopard’s home ranges are pushed further into the surrounding mountainous areas. The problem is that leopards do not always stay where it is safe, their large home ranges often taking them through hostile areas. The Western and Eastern Capes do have some wonderful Nature Reserves and Protected Areas, but these pockets of leopard-friendly habitat are often not connected or nearby, creating an extremely fragmented landscape that can be treacherous to travel.
We conducted extensive camera trapping across the Western Cape to determine a baseline estimate of the region’s leopard population. Coexistence between people and leopards is not going to become any easier throughout this highly transformed landscape so it is crucial to understand how the current leopard population is faring. This knowledge can influence conservation efforts and appropriate land management practices.
In addition to estimating the leopard population, we are currently investigating how biotic, abiotic and anthropogenic landscape features influence where these leopard occur, using collar data. Our ultimate goal is to understand how the landscape influences the size of the population, the presence and home range use of individual leopards, and how attitudes of landowners and residents living amongst leopard habitat affect the coexistence and persistence of the species in this region. This research is a small piece of a complicated puzzle to understand the big picture about the relationship between leopards and their remaining habitat in the Cape, in the hopes of conserving the region’s last remaining free roaming big cat.
Check out some of Landmark Foundation’s camera trap footage: