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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
Samango monkeys in Diepkloof, taking a break away from their usual home range!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fresh leopard scratch marks at one of the camera stations
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Sandi 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.”
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.
Leopard 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.
Porcupine 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!
Dispersed 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!