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Can satellites, tourists help save leopards?

Using old-fashioned sheep dogs and high-tech collars, conservationists in South Africa’s Cederberg mountains are trying to make peace between livestock farmers and the region’s last leopards.
To match feature Environment-Leopards
A leopard is caught in the glare of remotely triggered cameras in South Africa's Cedarberg mountains in this undated handout.Cape Leopard Trust / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Using old-fashioned sheep dogs and high-tech collars, conservationists in South Africa’s Cederberg mountains are trying to make peace between livestock farmers and the region’s last leopards.

They hope that by focusing attention on the plight of leopards in the Cederberg, which lies inland from South Africa’s west coast, about 120 miles north of Cape Town, they can help to preserve the diversity of plant and animal species in the wider ecosystem.

“The leopard is the top predator in the Cederberg,” said zoologist Quinton Martins, who with his wife Nicole set up The Cape Leopard Trust just over a year ago to protect the region’s wildlife.

“Whatever you do to benefit the leopard, benefits the whole ecosystem,” he said.

The Cederberg, rich in ancient rock art painted by the bushmen who first lived in the area, covers around 965 square miles, just under a third of which has been declared a wilderness where no farming or development is allowed.

Tourism argument
Outside the protected area, farmers can obtain permission to kill leopards and other predators that kill their sheep.

The trust is trying to persuade Cederberg farmers that it is in their own best interests not to try to wipe out the leopards, partly because of their potential to lure big-spending tourists.

The region already offers visitors hiking, rock climbing, rich botanical wealth and clear night skies for star gazing.

But Martins sees greater opportunities. “Leopard tourism could be a huge money-spinner for farmers and the area’s impoverished communities,” he said, adding farmers could take in paying guests.

In a major advance for the trust’s work, Martins in August trapped an adult male leopard in a cage, sedated it, then attached a GPS collar that tracks the animal’s movements.

On its release the leopard — dubbed Houdini because it twice escaped from cage traps before the collar could be fitted — bolted for a high ridge where it briefly went to ground to get over the trauma.

Tracking made easy
The GPS collar records and stores an animal’s geographical coordinates at a pre-programmed time interval.

The collar has the potential to revolutionize research into elusive animals such as leopards, greatly increasing the accuracy and detail of information about their habits.

Without it, scientists like Martins have to rely on chance sightings, tracking on foot or cameras located along likely leopard routes that are triggered by movement.

Martins enters the data into his laptop computer which instantly displays a map of the animal’s movements since it was released — times, dates, places, altitudes.

Martins has yet to draw any conclusions on Houdini’s habits, but he thinks GPS collars could play a big role in eco-tourism.

“Sometime in the future, it could be possible to take limited numbers of visitors on specialist leopard tracking expeditions — with the GPS collars, it becomes easier to track them and maybe even have an actual sighting,” said Martins. “Getting to see one of these extremely elusive cats in this incredibly beautiful mountain setting is a very rare and special thing. And the Cederberg is just three hours from Cape Town.”

15 leopards found
Martins has identified 15 leopards in his study area, including Houdini and two other adult territorial males.

Houdini is known to have killed 14 sheep, so a key concern is mitigating the age-old conflict between man and beast.

One of the trust’s projects is to make Anatolian shepherd dogs — bred to guard sheep, not herd them — available to livestock farmers. The dogs are raised with sheep so they form a bond with them and protect them from strangers, animal or human.

One of the first Cederberg farmers to obtain an Anatolian dog is Pip Nieuwoudt, who told a meeting organized by Western Cape province nature conservation officials in the Algeria forest station that the presence of the dog among his flocks allowed him to sleep easier at night.

“One problem with the dog is that sometimes he is over-protective. At breeding time he won’t let the rams come near his ewes,” Nieuwoudt said.

Painting a bigger picture
Martins and conservation officials tried to persuade farmers at the meeting that the best way to combat predators was to take a holistic approach.

That means introducing extra measures to protect domestic livestock, and maintaining as healthy an ecosystem as possible so that natural prey like rodents and antelope can proliferate.

Peaceful coexistence between leopards and sheep farmers benefited both, the farmers were told. The presence of a dominant adult male would deter the entry of other males, and would keep out competing predators.

Many of the farmers were skeptical; one snorted in derision when Martins said the trust’s Web site had 20,000 hits in a month. Among other things, the site has data from the collar.

“We have to be able to demonstrate to farmers the value of leopards,” Martins said later. “If we can say to a farmer, ’this leopard earned you R20,000 (about $3,000) last month through tourism’, he’s not going to kill it even if does take out some of his sheep.”