Guy Rogers ENVIRONMENT & TOURISM EDITOR
THERE may be as few as 30 leopards left in the 300000 hectare Baviaanskloof, the mountain wilderness north- west of Port Elizabeth long renowned as a leopard stronghold in the Eastern Cape.
That’s one of the shock indications emerging from a ground- breaking study by Rhodes ecology masters student Jeannine McManus, who spoke at a predator management workshop in Willowmore, on the edge of the Baviaanskloof.
McManus’s research is being done under the auspices of the Landmark Foundation, which hosted the workshop with Woolworths. The NGO and the blue chip supermarket group are shaping a new “predator-friendly lamb” model which they hope will put more rands in farmers’ pockets at the same time as persuading them to protect rather than kill their age-old enemies: leopard, rooikat and jackal.
This is also the premise behind McManus’s work. She explained: “Hopefully, with this new model assistance is going to come from you and me, the consumers. But in the meanwhile, there is so much we need to find out about leopard.”
Focusing on the privately owned land around the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, she started her work at the end of 2006 and has now trapped eight leopards and fitted them with sophisticated satellite tracking collars.
The data shows the males roam much wider than the females, with the largest range recorded 500km².
The collar data also shows the terrain over which the animals range – mostly gorges and rivers, probably in search of prey, and mountain habitat. Data also reveals the fluctuation in their energy expenditure. They travel great distances in search of food and when hunts end in success, activity reduces dramatically, sometimes for days.
Another fascinating revelation is that the females roam in the day and the males in the night. This phenomenon appears to be an unusual form of co-existence. Leopard populations in other parts of the country do not feature this gender separation.
McManus’s other main source of information is 30 cameras installed 5km apart around the study area. The cameras are moved every three months.
Following the shooting of one of the territorial males recently, it is expected that other leopards will now move into the area.
This would correspond with a new report by jackal researcher Rob Harrison-White, another delegate, that the presence of predators increases if the territorial pair or a member of the territorial pair is killed, she said.
“The footage we are collecting allows us clearly to identify animals and it is clear there are no overlaps in territory.
“If we extrapolate over the whole Baviaanskloof the number of animals we are capturing on film together with the range sizes we have identified, our preliminary finding is there could be as few as 30 leopards in the whole 300000ha kloof, which is very low and of great concern.
“It could have major implications for how the species is managed and protected.”
The research so far has covered all the private land around the reserve but has not yet gone into the reserve, McManus said.
“It will be interesting to see if the numbers there differ. My hunch is it will not be a massive jump.”
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org
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