As a wildlife researcher studying large carnivores, I don’t often get to see my study animals in the flesh. Study trees and you won’t be able to see the woods for them. Study primates, and on a good day you might spend 10 hours observing them. But study leopards, and the best you can normally hope for is to see a photograph of them. The forest is so thick at Lajuma, and the leopards are so persecuted and secretive, that although they occur at relatively high densities here, you can quite easily study them for a year and never see one. Except by using camera traps, of course, which are one of the main tools that we use to study leopards.
Camera trap photographs are an amazing source of data that allow us to estimate the population density, status and trends of leopards
But we also sometimes capture leopards so that we can fit GPS collars, to monitor their use of space, their activity patterns, and how they interact with other species. It can help us to determine their fate, in a way that is not always possible with camera traps.
Fitting a collar to a leopard also provides us with a rare opportunity to see the study animals with our own eyes rather than a camera sensor. By the time a leopard is captured, we have normally been monitoring them for some time on the camera traps. We might have first seen them years ago, when they were a cub, still walking with their mother. We might have watched them grow, learn to hunt, become and adult, mate, and rasise cubs of their own. All through the lens. So when we fit a collar to a leopard, it is very interesting to finally meet them in the flesh.
Sam measuring Pimms, before fitting the GPS collar (July 2014)
And if we are lucky, the first time we meet is also the last and only time. All being well, the collar collects and stores valuable data for about 15 months, then it drops off automatically, and the leopard continues about its’s leopardy business. We collect the collar, download and analyse the data, and refurbish the collar, ready to be fitted to another animal.
But our research suggests that this is rarely how things play out. Leopards in the Soutpansberg appear to be under a great deal of pressure from human activity. It seems that it’s all too easy for them to pick up a snare. To get shot. To get poisoned. And that will be the story of you…
Pimms camera trap image, with snare wound (June 2015)
This is exactly what happened to the last leopard that we collared, a young adult male named Pimms. Since we fitted his collar in July 2014, things had been going fine. But we recently collected a photograph when we checked our camera traps that showed that all was not well. Pimms had a snare around his waist. We acted quickly to find a vet who was willing to dart the leopard, so that we could remove the collar while they take off the snare and treat the wounds. We followed the signal from the collar, but by the time we found Pimms, it was too late. Pimms succumbed to his wounds just a few hours before we found him. The snare had torn open his abdominal cavity, spilling his intestines on the ground.
Close up of the snare wound
Close up of the snare
Unfortunately Pimms is not the first collared leopard whose remains we have later found, killed by illegal human activity. Preliminary analysis of our data suggests that the Soutpansberg leopard population is in decline, and illegal activity such as snaring seems to be one of the main drivers of this. People may set snares to capture wildlife for many reasons, including hunger, poverty, boredom, recreation and tradition. But snaring is an incredibly wasteful way of harvesting wild meat – most of the animals captured simply rot in the bush, feeding no one but the maggots. This is especially true for animals strong enough to break off the snare from it’s anchor and carry it away with them, like Pimms did. It is also non-selective – non-target species can be killed just as easily as species that people actually want to catch. Not to mention snaring being illegal, and causing a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – we are stepping up our outreach efforts in the hope that we can mitigate this problem in the future. The private land owners and the communities with whom we work are keen to help us put an end to this practice. This is part of a broader program that we are initiating, which aims to help local people to live with leopards and other wildlife rather than coming into conflict. Watch this space!