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Special Feature: Lajuma Life as a Research Assistant

Marc’s blog on Lajuma

My name is Marc Engler and I finished my bachelor’s in Biology at the Humboldt-University to Berlin in January 2017. I soon decided that I wanted to gain more work experience, meet people from around the globe and specialize in certain research methods by joining a project that combines wildlife research with important conservational aspects, before heading into my Master’s.

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Fresh leopard tracks along the trail to one of the camera stations

I came up to the stunning Soutpansberg Mountains to work at the Lajuma Research Centre, focussing on the usage of canopy bridges by samango monkeys and other diurnal and nocturnal species. But with the PPP being short on predator assistants at that moment due to unexpected visa problems, I was asked by Dr. Leah Findlay if I was interested in helping out. Of course I was, so while conducting my own project I was also helping out as an honorary predator assistant as much as possible – and it turned out to be probably one of the best decisions in my life so far.

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Servicing our cameras

 

 

 

The life of a predator assistant for the Primate and Predator Project can be tough, physically challenging, with long days and lots of organization – but most importantly it is highly fulfilling and a hell of a lot of fun! Soon after Leah worked me in, my daily working routine became a varied mix of different tasks. Incredible hikes of different length (2h to 6h), four times a week, to several camera stations in the study area gave me the unique chance to not only help run a camera grid for an important conservational purpose, but also to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the Soutpansberg mountains in areas that hardly anyone else visits regularly. That given, I was very grateful to be able to spot several different species like bushbuck, duikers, baboons, mambas and cobras on those hikes.

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Stunning view on the way to the camera stations

The work as a predator assistant is also very rewarding, since it surprises you every day what has been captured on the camera traps when inspecting and organizing the collected data back in the office. Having the chance to see animals like leopards, civets, aardvarks and hyenas on the images, knowing that they shared the same path you took just a few hours ago, is an amazing experience that keeps you going and leaves you stunned every time. Taking part in an incredible research project whilst being able to have unique insights in the surrounding nature and wildlife with a minimum of disturbance or impact – in my opinion there is not much out there that can beat that.

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Fresh leopard scratch marks at one of the camera stations

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Spitting cobra

But not only the scientific and conservational aspects of my work with the PPP made be feeling proud being part of it, it is also the people around you that shape both the social and the work environment. Even though I didn’t actually live in PPP’s bush camp, for the period of my stay at the Lajuma Research Centre I am tempted to say they became a second family, but even more importantly I found friends for life. I am going to miss a group of highly motivated students with different backgrounds (undergraduate to PhD), with people helping each other out whenever needed and a very positive atmosphere. I learned a lot, both scientifically and socially related, and I am grateful for that. For that reason, I especially want to thank Dr. Leah Findlay and Philip Faure. Still, I am convinced that this won’t be the last time for me working on this mountain, and I am looking forward to it – a lot.

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PPP Team in front of the office

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Fun times (work related of course) on the quad

Extra, extra, read all about it!

Yesterday Dr Sam Williams, former Research Coordinator of the PPP, released a paper about the current status of the leopard population in the Soutpansberg Mountain. This has attracted quite a lot of media coverage…

Leopards need maximum protection: this includes banning trophy hunting

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A leopard shows its spots in the Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa.
Sam Williams, CC BY-SA

Sam Williams, Durham University

Trophy hunting of large carnivores in southern Africa is a hotly debated topic. This was evident after Cecil the lion was shot and killed in Zimbabwe last year. The Conversation

One argument in support of trophy hunting is that, if done sustainably, it can benefit conservation by providing much needed funding.

But how do we know which populations of animals can sustain trophy hunting? In South Africa there has been a temporary moratorium on trophy hunting of leopards since 2016.

This is because there is “uncertainty about the numbers”, according to John Donaldson, director of research at the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

There is every reason to argue that leopards should be managed very carefully. They are of increasing conservation concern, and have recently been uplisted to vulnerable on both the global and South African national Red List assessments.

Working in South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains, we set out to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of this vulnerable species.

In 2008 the mountains had one of the highest recorded population densities (the number of animals per 100 km²) of leopards in Africa outside of protected areas. But our new study shows that since then leopard density has declined by two thirds. Unless things change they will disappear from the area by 2020. The biggest threat to these animals appears to be illegal human activity such as shooting without permits, snaring and poisoning.

Based on our findings we believe that trophy hunting isn’t responsible for the precipitous decline in numbers. Nevertheless, it’s important that the moratorium is extended while researchers such as our collaborators at Panthera assess whether these results are representative on a broader scale. We also propose stepping up efforts to mitigate the impacts of illegal human activities to protect the remaining leopards.

Leopard tracking

How did we gain these new insights? Leopards are incredibly elusive animals, making them extremely difficult to study. We took advantage of the fact that each leopard has different coat markings and that allows them to be individually identified, like a fingerprint. We used images taken by camera traps to determine which leopards were seen at which locations and on what date, allowing us to model changes in their density over time.

The camera traps were telling us
that leopards were disappearing fast.
Sam Williams

 

By running a network of camera traps continuously from 2012 to 2016, we were able to estimate the leopard population density in 24 sequential study periods. This helped us build the most detailed picture yet of whether leopard numbers were growing or declining.

The camera traps were telling us that leopards were disappearing fast, but what they didn’t tell us was why this was happening. To find out we fitted GPS collars to eight leopards. This allowed us to track them for 15 months, until the batteries ran out and the collar detached. Only two collared leopards survived, although one of these animals would have been poisoned if we hadn’t intervened.

The remaining six leopards were killed by snares, were shot without permits for perceived cattle predation, or went missing, almost certainly dead. Many farmers indicated that they killed leopards in retaliation for the perceived risks to livestock but our dietary analysis has revealed no evidence of this.

Searching for solutions

Our findings demonstrate that although trophy hunting isn’t the cause of the leopard’s problems, it’s a luxury in this area that it cannot afford. We recommend that if the moratorium on leopard hunting in South Africa is lifted, hunting should not be permitted in zones where leopards are in rapid decline, as this would not be sustainable.

A farmer introduces his new
livestock-guarding dog to his cattle
herd. Philip Faure

 

Sound management of trophy hunting is incredibly important, but our study shows that conservationists also need to increase their efforts to reduce the effects of illegal human activities on wildlife. This could have a bigger impact on enhancing the conservation status of large carnivores. We recommend helping to educate and engage with communities to reduce levels of human-wildlife conflict.

There are an array of non-lethal techniques available to manage predation, such as using livestock-guarding dogs, building robust enclosures, and herding livestock, that can be more effective at reducing predation than killing predators.

We hope that more countries follow South Africa’s lead in basing wildlife management policies on the best available scientific evidence. And if government authorities and non-profit organisations can provide greater support to communities to enable them to adopt predator-friendly practices this could be just what the leopard needs to bounce back.

Sam Williams, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

See other news coverage here:

The Independent
The Express
Daily Mail
Yahoo news
Breitbart
Daily Maverick (South Africa)
Steelburger (Lydenburg, South Africa)
Gulf news
Telangana Today
Modern Ghana
Expatica
Diario
The Independant (Uganda)

Revamping Bushcamp

This week the assistants at bush camp have been busy giving the accommodation a bit of a revamp.

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James busy building furniture from wooden palletes

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Allison digging up roots ready for a new patio area

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Zina decorating the lapa

Although we spent a busy Sunday making all these improvements, there is still lots to do before we are done. Watch this space for more on our revamp!

 

Special Feature: Lajuma Life as a Research Assistant

Sandi’s Blog on Lajuma

“I am a university student who went to work at PPP for a university placement. Although most students do these placements for a year, I decided to go for 5 months. I am very happy with how my placement went, having a keen interest in primates, predators, reptiles and photography. I got to fulfil all of my interests whether it was through hobby or the placement itself.

IMG-20170315-WA0009Sandi at Lajuma

For the first month, I was participating on the primate side of the project, doing follows and office work, then I changed to the predator side, which was an advantage to both me and the project. The project was one person short on the predator side as previously a predator student switched to be a primate student, and I wanted a more social placement. I hiked four days a week which varied in distance, sometimes I was out for two hours and others I was out for six hours, which is great for fitness! The other working day I spent doing vegetation plots or phenology work for the primate assistants in the morning with office work in the afternoon.

Bush camp has a very sociable environment, there are constantly people around. Having a communal dinner and movie on a Sunday are great activities for a day off! On Saturday evenings the bush camp has a braai, and students from the other research camp at the barn also come over and join in, providing a great opportunity to mingle and get to know each other. People are always willing to help each other out and get others involved in their work. I was able to go on a few night walks to find reptiles with another student who is studying them, and this was great for me as I am very interested in them myself.

I got to practise a lot of wildlife photography in my spare time, whether it was mammals, reptiles or invertebrates. Here are a selection of the shots I got.”

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Baby chameleon  

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Mother and infant chacma baboon

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Vine snake

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Two vervet juveniles playing

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Swallowtail butterfly

 

 

 

 

Lajumas’ super-sleuth’s first CSI

On a recent hike to service some of PPPs camera traps, two of Lajumas’ assistants turned detective, when they stumbled upon what appeared to be a recently perpetrated crime! Sandi and Simon used their knowledge of animal tracks and footage from the camera traps, to decipher the clues.

A leopard had very recently attacked a porcupine, but it wasn’t clear whether the porcupine had escaped or not. As the two investigated, they found clear leopard tracks close to lots of quills from the porcupine.

received_10208211174948836Leopard prints found at the scene – Simon’s hand shows a comparison for size.

The picture below shows many porcupine neck quills, indicating the leopard got the porcupine at the back of the neck.

received_10208281666711086Porcupine neck quills at the scene.

There were also porcupine quills alongside further leopard tracks at least 100 m  away – perhaps the porcupine was not so lucky this time!

received_10208281664991043Dispersed porcupine quills alongside more leopard tracks.

Whilst the actions of this leopard are a perfectly natural and normal event, it was great for our assistants to be able to put the knowledge they learn here to use. They had great fun playing detective.

Move over Miss Marple, there are new sleuths in town!

It must be baby season…

We have recently been coming across many new recruits to Lajuma Native Reserve and the surrounding farms on our camera traps. Here is a photo blog of some of our little furry friends that I am sure everyone will enjoy…

img_0297We recently had a new cub join our leopard population. You can just about see the cub following behind its mother, Rowena. We’ll post you more pictures as we get them.

img_0322This flock of guinea fowl have a lot of young to take care of!

img_1150Young bushpig are certainly much cuter than their parents!

img_1122Whilst young impala are a spitting image of their mother.

img_1135These little warthog-lets have no worries as long as they are following behind their mother.

img_0058Infant chacma baboons often play with their older siblings, but staying close to mum just in case!

img_1905This is a baby bushbuck.

honey-badgerAnd of course you will remember this little fur ball that we captured on camera back in October – honey badger.

Special Feature: Lajuma Life as a Research Assistant

Getting started at Lajuma by Zina Morbach

“A couple of months ago, I, a PhD student from the UK, and a new primate assistant arrived at Lajuma to work for the Primate and Predator Project. Starting to work and live in a new place is always nerve-racking, but doing so in “the middle of nowhere” somewhere in South Africa can add a new dimension of nerves to the experience. However, after some delay to our travel, that is probably typical for all African countries, we arrived safely at the camp and were very warmly welcomed. We moved into our rooms and were immediately integrated into the social program that was going on (a pub quiz that evening).

While our arrival was very smooth and people were most welcoming, it was still quite overwhelming. Especially the next morning, when, in the early morning light, we realized that the camp was situated just off the cliff. After the needed inductions, we started our training a few days later. And let me tell you, experience in wandering mountainous regions can only be helpful here! We both grew up in rather flat regions of Europe, so having to climb the first cliffs, sliding off rocks, and trying to figure out how to get back up was quite a task. So, here’s an insider tip: If you don’t have much experience hiking in rocky, very steep environments, or climbing cliffs, it might be a good idea to consider taking a few lessons in a climbing hall, or try out some rock climbing! It might just make your start here a little bit easier.

img_0135Cliffs of the Soutpansberg Mountains.

While I will be working with baboons, most primate assistants work with Samango or vervet monkeys. I can’t say much about that work, other than that they are very fascinating animals, and following them is, while demanding, rather enjoyable from what I hear!

If you would like to work with baboons, however, let me tell you that you are up for a challenge! Only a few people have found the endurance and energy to follow them for more than a few months. It involves a lot of climbing up cliffs, wandering over more savannah like parts without much shade, and keeping up with some fascinating animals who sometimes just seem to have a sudden idea of where they would rather be right now! But, to be honest, I find it quite rewarding. I am slowly learning to distinguish the individuals, get to know their characters, and love seeing how they live their lives in this harsh environment. Most of all, though, I love to just sit with them in the late afternoon in a forest, when things get calmer and they search for food in the leaf litter. Just sitting and watching these intelligent animals, that is my happy moment.”

img_1446Zina’s assistant, Allison, collecting data from our habituated baboon troop.