Does hunting Affect Leopard Behaviour?

Hi, My name is Sophie and I am a Predator Research Assistant for the Primate and Predator Project. I’m here as part of an internship from my zoology course at Cardiff University. This means I am conducting my own project that will go towards my degree as well as checking the permanent camera traps and tagging photos with Elliot. Katy asked me if I would tell you guys about my project. It’s pretty interesting, in my totally unbiased opinion.

After chatting with Katy and Sam awhile back in January, I decided to focus my project on exploring whether leopard behaviour changes between hunting season and closed season, across a nature reserve and an adjacent hunting farm. This was a research question that was prompted by the owner of said nature reserve mentioning that she strongly believed she had more leopards on her property when the neighbouring farms where hunting.

So the project had 11 cameras available from some previous research which I was allocated to set up. The PPP already has a camera grid set up across a nature reserve and they see plenty of leopards on the cameras. It was my intention to extend the camera grid across onto the hunting farm. I can then look at the number of leopard events on the cameras, the time they happen, and potentially track the movements of individual leopards. Is there a pattern to leopard movements, and does this change when hunting season begins? Do leopards spend less time on the hunting farm? Do they move more nocturnally during hunting season? Do they move onto the nature reserve and spend more time there during hunting season? Hopefully, I will be able answer these questions.

But before I could go to the hunting farm, I needed to familiarise myself with the cameras and test them all. They are different from the Reconyx cameras set up in the PPP grid. So cue me turning bush camp into big brother, which resulted in general paranoia and several 1000 pictures of people mooching about camp. I also found out the Maya the cat likes to sit on the kitchen step at night.

Feeling like someone is watching you?

Bush Camp CCTV: Finding out who the midnight snackers are!

So on the 16th of January, armed with cameras that definitely worked, I set off with Oldrich and fellow PPP assistant Nico to the hunting farm to place the cameras in appropriate spots. Sam had made GPS points in a grid that we would try to place the cameras as close to. Each camera is a point at the centre of a circle, and it has a (2.7km) radius that forms a buffer zone that the camera covers. The aim is to have as much of the property covered, and that any gaps are not big enough for a leopard territory.

So we drove round the property searching for the best place to put cameras near to the GPS points. A lot of their roads are paved, so it was very luxurious compared to Lajuma’s roads, which have, ahem, ‘character’. The majority of points were along roads. Leopards use roads to move about as it’s easier than trudging through the bush. A good thing too, otherwise it would be much harder to set each camera station. Appropriate trees are selected or stakes placed in the ground and all the grass around the camera is cleared.

DSC_0769DSC_0770

The property I placed my cameras on was absolutely beautiful.

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We also had a short snack break at a sour plum tree. Oldrich and Nico wolfed them down but they were a bit too sour for me.

One of my cameras was placed near a hide where they hunt leopard when they get a permit to do so.

Sometimes it’s quite difficult to place the cameras where the GPS point was. One of the points was in this gorge

which was beautiful and had a waterfall at the bottom which I swam in. Leopards often walk along water courses to get from A to B.

But unfortunately it was too dense and steep and too much effort to navigate that a leopard would be unlikely to walk there. So things don’t always go exactly as you plan them in front of the computer, you need to adapt to the way the actual environment is like.

The camera instead was put on a nearby road.

But we got them all set up to my satisfaction and in total we put out 6 different stations across the property. Oldrich also collected data from his weather stations which are the reason why I can tag along with him when I need to change the batteries and sd cards.

So those cameras have been out there for a month and recently I went out again with Oldrich. This time there was a snack break of amarula fruit instead of sourplums, which are very delicious. Interestingly the cameras didn’t capture nearly as much leopards as the ones on Lajuma and the adjacent properties covered by the camera grid. But this is still data, maybe there is less on the property, or maybe they weren’t well placed. I certainly got plenty of pictures of zebra. I have got one leopard so far, though I haven’t been through all the pictures yet. Unfortunately the picture was too blurry to ID. He (or she) appeared on the station closest to the hide where they hunt leopards, which would indicate that at the very least they have certainly got the hide placed right.

I will be continuing to camera trap right through game hunting season, though I don’t know if any leopard trophy hunting will take place yet. I am hoping to interview the manager of the farm to ask him about game numbers and hunting practices, and what he thinks the leopards do. I have already interviewed the owner of the nature reserve about leopards on her property. I’m looking forward to seeing how my project will unfold, and will keep you posted on any exciting developments.

DSC_0797Nico has a blood diamond moment

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