Leopards in the Limelight
Researchers are using camera traps to study these big cats in the Klein Karoo – By Scott Ramsay
In light of the current media attention regarding leopards and their conservation, CapeNature would like to confirm our dedication and support for leopard conservation in the Western Cape. CapeNature works hard, together with partners like the Cape Leopard Trust, to ensure the conservation of this magnificent predator.
Leopards in the limelight
There are leopards in the Gamkaberg’s mountains! On a walk down the Tierkloof with reserve manager Tom Barry and field ranger Cornelius Julies, we came across fresh leopard spoor. “This is a leopard’s highway,” Tom joked.
Only it isn’t a joke. There are plenty of leopards in the Gamkaberg. And interestingly, some of them are much bigger than the average Cape leopard, which tends to be about half the size of the leopards found in the rest of Africa.
Tom took us to meet Gareth Mann, a PhD student who is working with the Cape Leopard Trust to understand the ecology of leopards in the Klein Karoo.
Gareth and his team have set up 56 cameras across their 3 000 square kilometre study area, and have collared three leopards, gaining information on their movements from the GPS signals. This gives the researchers a good idea of their territories, as well as other things like their prey. “When we see that they haven’t moved for a while, that’s probably because they’ve made a kill,” Gareth explained. “We can then check out what they’ve eaten.”
Interestingly, and contrary to accepted wisdom, the Gamkaberg leopards are regular hunters of baboons – about 30% of their diet. Elsewhere in the Cape, leopards tend to avoid baboons, which can be as big as the cats, with sharp canines that are even larger. Other prey species include duiker, hares and klipspringer.
How is research done?
Leopards are rarely seen, so camera traps are invaluable for recording the population. The trap makes use of an infra-red beam – when an animal breaks the beam a photograph is taken. Other animals are frequently snapped by the camera traps, providing useful information for conservation. The cameras are set up in places where leopard tracks, scat (droppings), scratch marks on trees or actual sightings have occurred.
Researchers use the photographs to develop an identikit of leopards in the area. Each leopard has a unique pattern of spots that enables individuals to be identified from photos. The cats aren’t symmetrical on either side, so traps must be set up in such a way that the animal is photographed simultaneously from both sides.