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Nature, red in tooth and claw

On the 15th of July, Zina and Allison, two of our primate researchers, heard a loud commotion from the baboon troop they were following. Upon investigation, they found that one of the collared baboon females, Perry, was in a terrible state. Unsure of whether she was attacked by another baboon, or by something else, they called it in on the radio. Andy and Philip, our Primate Research Coordinator and Community Engagement Officer, went to investigate.

“Upon arrival we found Perry lying on her side and occasionally trying to get up. She had sustained major injuries to her head and her arm seemed to be broken”, said Philip. “We couldn’t see any leopard tracks or any other signs of a predator and kept monitoring her to see if she would recover. Close by a bushbuck was alarm calling in terror. Clearly, something was scaring it.” That evening Andy and Philip put up some camera traps to see if we could capture what was going on, and then left to let nature take its course.

The next morning, Perry was found a few meters from where she had been lying the previous morning, and still alive! There were no images of predators on the cameras. Were Perry’s injuries caused by another baboon in a fight? Or was it a leopard? We still did not know. She looked to be in a better state than she was the previous day, so we left the cameras to further monitor what happened. “Baboons are tough animals and I’ve seen a few that have bounced back from near death and horrible injuries”, said Andy who has worked with baboons for more than 3 years.

Philip and Andy returned the following morning at 4 am to remove her GPS collar, since this could have aided her chances of survival. However, she was completely missing… “We started tracking her with the VHF and kept getting a clear signal, but then it would disappear as soon as we got close. So we started again and the same thing happened, time and time again. We had our suspicions, but weren’t sure what was wrong with the collar”, said Andy. Eventually, we found baboon hair scattered over the grass (as leopards usually do with their kills), covered in fresh blood and saliva. “At that point we were sure it was a leopard, and it was close!”, said Philip. Common sense then took over, as it’s not the best idea to stumble around in the dark following a leopard and its kill.

When the camera images were checked back in the office, Philip realised they had missed Dexter, a big male leopard, by just 17 minutes! Even so, they got within 30 meters of him and his kill. The intermittent VHF signal was probably Dexter dragging his breakfast away from those pesky researchers! Later that day we returned to retrieve the GPS collar that Perry had been wearing. Only a few small signs of her remained. We found her skull, which had two big puncture holes where Dexter’s teeth had gone straight through. The collar had been damaged too. It really was a ferocious attack and astonishing that Perry lasted as long as she did. Baboons really are amazingly resilient animals, but some foes are just too big to overcome.

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Canisius College Visit

From 23rd May to 10th June Dr. Sue Margulis and a group of her students from Canisius College in the United States joined Lajuma for their annual field course. Their programme involved a variety of animal behaviour, ecology and conservation related activities, and PPP were able to get involved with the group on some of these activities.

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The Canisius College group

On 7th June, Philip took the Canisius group to see one of the Anatolian livestock guarding dogs (LGDs), Bindi, on a farm here in the mountains. They left really early in order to reach the farm before the cattle went out to graze. In the field Philip had the opportunity to teach the group about how these dogs work and what they do. However, Bindi was not too well when the group arrived, so instead of going out with the cattle she made a visit to the vet. It turns out that Bindi was bitten by a tick which resulted in tick bite fever, but after some medicine all is well and Bindi is as strong as before.

After the Anatolian LGD visit, Philip took the group to one of the local schools where they conducted some environmental education work with the local learners. They played games with the children to get them excited, after which Philip taught them about the local biodiversity found in the mountains and the impacts of snaring on this wildlife, as well as other conservation issues. As always the kids were very receptive and had loads of questions. Philip says that one of the best questions he has been asked so far is “What sound does a Liger make?”, does anyone know?

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Canisius College visiting local school children

PPP also took the group on a hike to some of our camera trap stations, and the group helped to tag and sort many of our images. They also helped Philip to tag many of his images from his new camera grid down in the Mara area. On the last night Sue and her students prepared a feast for everyone on Lajuma to say thank you!

African Leadership Academy Students Visit the Primate and Predator Project

On the 6th June the African Leadership Academy (ALA) visited the Primate and Predator Project (PPP) to learn more about our research, conservation and community outreach efforts. Three of the top learners from the ALA accompanied by their mentor and a Sumbandila Scholarship Trust representative came to visit. Philip, our Community Engagement Officer, took them around Lajuma to show them the beauty of the mountains, while also using this opportunity as an outdoor classroom.

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The ALA team. Photo by Sarah Robbertze.

The ALA and Sumbandila Scholarship Trust share visions of the hope to select extraordinary children from backgrounds of extreme poverty and offer them a world-class education alongside a strong mentor programme. Both organisations aim to develop young leaders and entrepreneurs who will work together to address Africa’s challenges, achieve extraordinary social impact, and one day give back to the countries and communities they came from.

Unfortunately, they were only here for a single day but they had a whole day full of activities. They got to learn about the Anatolian research project which we are starting, the research we do on leopard populations in the mountains and about general carnivore ecology and ecosystem services. They also had a chance to go on an eco hike to one of our beautiful waterfalls here on Lajuma where they were taught about sustainable energy and hydro-electricity.

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Photo of the waterfall taken by Sarah Robbertze.

We hope to see these young souls grow up to become the future conservation minded leaders of our continent and abroad!

The Samangos Weekend Away

Last week the samangos went on a weekend jolly up to Diepkloof. This is the first time we have recorded our habituated samangos in Diepkloof since 2014, raising some interesting questions.

Of the two samango groups we follow, House group are notoriously predictable and rarely stray far from their sleep site at the Barn. It was quite a surprise then, when they decided to head towards Diepkloof last Friday, a good 2 km away from their usual hang-out.

Being primarily arboreal, samango monkeys are usually confined to tall, continuous forest habitats, although they are also able to utilise shorter, patchier forest fragments linking the taller forests. The path to Diepkloof therefore poses a potential predation risk, as the small forest corridor can be as short as 5 m tall and less than 100 m wide. As a result, the 60-70 samangos within the group got to know each other a little better, as they were crammed into this small fragmented corridor.

These risks were further amplified when the group made their way through the “patches” on Saturday (so called for its small and patchily distributed bush clumps). A habitat we typically see our baboons travel through, the samangos looked slightly out of place running from patch to patch and across open, exposed grasslands. A particular highlight was watching a group of 60+ samango monkeys making the nervy dash across an open rocky patch to make it to the taller forest only about 20 m away!

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Habitat such as the “patches” is very open, an unusual habitat for samangos to be in.

So why then would samango monkeys not only travel so far away from their typical home range, but also expose themselves to the increased risk of predation resulting from traveling through short, patchy forests?

Well… with breeding season well underway, both our groups now include multiple males. Typically during the breeding season, a male may come into the group and take with him a small subgroup of females who have taken a particular fancy to him. Perhaps the whole group has finally had enough of the resident male, Skeletor, and decided to follow a bachelor male up to his usual stomping ground up in Diepkloof.

Perhaps, a more likely suggestion, concerns food availability. Samangos usually think with their bellies, and as we’re approaching the depth of the South African winter (which still boasts days reaching the mid thirties mind…), food is starting to become scarce. If times are hard finding food within the normal home range, it may well be worth the group packing up for the weekend in search of food a little further for home.

Or, perhaps the samangos just fancied getting away for the weekend. Who doesn’t enjoy a little winter break? A couple of PhD students at the PPP are currently interested in how food availability and primate ranging, so watch this space for some more concrete answers!

Written by Ed Parker.

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Samango monkeys in Diepkloof, taking a break away from their usual home range!

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!