This cat, that is said to be the cattiest of them all, truly has a magic touch to its appearance. When tracking, it seems to be everywhere, but it's appearance is nowhere. When one is lucky enough to suddenly get a glimpse of the cat, it is so intense that when it’s gone as sudden as it appeared, it feels like if time had stopped. Actually, the Leopard’s invisible appearance is an evolutionary advancement. Through time, the fur of the cat has proved to be the ultimate disguise, dressed to invisibility. Not to forget, most of it’s prey that it is hiding from are colour blind, so the Leopards dressing coat works as well in the grey scale.
The Leopard is a true survivor. It can be found living in cold moorlands of 5000 m above sea level, in desert areas, rainforests, savannah and last but not least, in city suburbs and farmlands. How? It is extremely adaptable and a true opportunist. Most people would probably refer to the leopard as a grand predator eating large grazing pray in the bushy savannah; that image we are used to from television. However, leopards are still abundant in Africa and most of the leopards don’t live in that type of savannah habitat. The size of the leopard's home range is depending on the food abundance; lots of food makes a small home range enough. The classic savannah we usually see in television has the highest biomass of prey and the leopards can be many due to the small home ranges. Besides, for a TV team it is a lot easier to monitor leopards in the open landscape, especially since the leopards move relatively small distances utilizing small home ranges. Interesting is that this cat does as well in the other types of habitats mentioned above. It’s just that the home range will be much larger to cover the neccesary minimum amount of prey, and the prey will not be big grazers. Leopards are opportunists and eat anything they can kill. Small animal like rodents, birds, monkeys and tiny antelopes of a few kilos are common food for leopards. And if leopards live among people they can as well eat dogs or goats. Basically, leopards eat almost everything and can live almost everywhere. This makes the leopard the least threatened cat on the African continent.
From another perspective, it faces local extinction and this trend is increasing all over Africa. Mainly it is a competitor to farmers as it eats goats and is an easy target to kill by poisoning meat left for the leopard to eat. Many times farmers intend to kill hyenas by poisoning meat, but end up killing leopards too. The increase of farmlands is spreading across Africa and the leopard’s habitats are getting fragmentised. Isolated islands of small leopard populations forces, especially young leopards, to walk long distances over hostile land to find a mating partner or to find a new home range, risking to get killed. In a scenario like this, much of todays research is about to identify how large home range a leopard needs in the new types of fragmented mixed habitats, how they move and utilise their home ranges and how we can facilitate the leopards survival balancing to minimize human conflicts.
An example of this is the research I made in Aberdares in Kenya. The land in between the two protected forest areas of Mt Kenya and Aberdares is changing. Today much of this land is farmland. Leopards extend their home ranges outside the national parks and are naturally dispersing between them. Roughly in the middle between Mt Kenya and Aberdares is a newly formed private reserve called ‘Sangare Ranch Conservancy’ and was formed by the landowner to protect the natural bush and its wild animals for the future.
How important are these small private contributions to large carnivore conservation? What is the activity of leopards in a small conservancy like this? Those are questions that not only the persons that already have a conservancy want to know when monitoring it, but most important for the people that wish to convert their land into a conservancy. It is difficult to measure leopard activity, simply because it is elusive and almost impossible to see and count visibly and is mostly nocturnal. One can put up lots of camera traps but this is expensive and in habituated areas there is a risk of theft as well.
One method is to track them and collect dung for DNA identification of individuals. DNA analysis is costly, but the tracking can become very efficient because once leopard signs are related to its measured abundance by DNA analysis, future monitoring can be done without DNA analysis only relating to the abundance of signs. For this, methods of tracking leopards have to be standardized to be comparable in future, but how to find a good and efficient tracking method was not well known. One wouldn’t want to waste too much time and efforts tracking without getting the most out of it.
I investigated a tracking method that proved to work well in this kind of habitat and found that this type of conservancy has a very high activity of leopards. This shows how important the small conservancies are as stepping stones included in the leopards home ranges or when dispersing to find new homes or mates. My work can be read as a published research article, see further under ‘Publications’ on your right.
Copyright Henrik Svengren 2014 - All rights reserved
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