The Big Cats Initiative Grants Program seeks to identify and support projects that engage in immediate actions leading to reductions in big cat mortality. BCI Grantee Florian Weise provides this dispatch from the field:
Leopard given GPS collar after capture on Namibian cattle ranch
A large portion of central Namibia’s landscape is used for cattle production. On these vast cattle ranches indigenous apex predators such as lion and spotted hyena have long been extirpated and in the process other large carnivore species, including the leopard, have become dominant and flourished in numbers. Leopards coexist with both livestock and game animals on the ranches, but conflicts with ranchers frequently arise during calving seasons when young cattle are vulnerable to predation by leopards. The researchers of N/a’an ku se have been working with Namibian cattle ranchers since2008 inorder to mitigate these conflicts for the benefit of both ranchers and the big cats. The research aims to document population characteristics and dynamics of leopard and cheetah as well as brown hyena on cattle ranches and assess conflict levels. At the same time, it contains applied elements in testing livestock protection measures and carnivore management techniques to prevent predation and in the course increase tolerance of the large carnivores on ranches.
The truth is that not all leopards are livestock predators and the ranchers know this and are generally tolerant of the large cats, even if some livestock losses occur but remain in acceptable thresholds. Individual leopards, however, can cause significant economical damage to ranchers if they develop a habitual taste for cattle. These scenarios need be dealt with and ranchers increasingly make more use of scientific information available from intensive carnivore monitoring programs.
For example, Marlice van Vuuren, director of N/a’an ku se, was approached by a cattle rancher from the Khomas Hochland area in central Namibia after a calf had been killed by a young leopard male. The leopard had been known to live on this particular cattle ranch for approximately one year already and previously had never caused any problems as he was pursuing natural prey, especially mountain zebra and greater kudu. After attacking the calf, however, the rancher decided to trap the leopard. The remains of the calf were used as bait in a live trap and the leopard was captured within 24 hours. Footprint assessments at the kill and capture sites confirmed that the responsible animal had been caught. Moreover, no further stock losses were noted in the following days. As part of their partnership with the research program, the rancher refrained from trapping several other leopards known to roam the property, including an adult female with dependent cubs.
The rancher also agreed that the leopard could be released again onto a game reserve if the animal was fitted with a tracking device for subsequent monitoring. With the help of a veterinarian, the researchers immobilized the leopard and performed an intensive health assessment. In addition, several body measurements were taken and the 3.5 year-old male, now registered as N047, weighed 42kg and showed intact dentition. Finally, the leopard was tagged with a modern GPS satellite collar that will enable the researchers to closely follow the animal’s movements through satellite tracking and ground monitoring. The device has been programmed to document 4 positions of the leopard every day for up to 3 years. After the necessary permits had been obtained from government wildlife authorities, the leopard was moved to the new Neuhof Nature Reserve where it was released. The reserve measures in excess of 300km2 and harbors high natural prey densities but not many leopards. Namibia is fortunate enough to still have these large land tracts with very low human population densities and land uses compatible with the presence of large carnivores. Especially in the southern parts of the country large areas of land, like Neuhof, have recently been converted from traditional livestock ranches to conservation and/or tourism reserves where species like the leopard can roam freely and have very little chance of causing conflict.
Whilst the translocation of large carnivores is arguably a controversial management tool and only comes into play when damage has already been done, the technique has rarely been assessed properly or been evaluated in scientific terms. The data that will be gathered from this leopard will contribute towards a larger PhD study on these issues and help researchers understand whether translocations are a feasible and suitable carnivore management option. So far, the leopard is doing very well in its new environment and the team will keep a close eye on him. For 2012, National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative supports the research work of N/a’an ku se in the endeavor to promote more evidence based big cat management on Namibian ranchlands.