Secretive lives of leopards revealed through scientific monitoring in Namibia

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 Grantees often provide updates from the field, and we love sharing them with you.  BCI Grantee Florian Weise provides this dispatch from the field.


By Florian J. Weise, Head researcher at N/a’an ku sê Foundation

Worldwide the management of large predators in human-dominated landscapes becomes more efficient and professional as monitoring technologies and scientific protocols advance. The carnivore researchers of N/a’an ku sê Foundation in Namibia use a variety of techniques and tools to shed light on the elusive lives of apex predators such as leopard Panthera pardus. The research programme mainly focuses on human-carnivore conflicts on Namibian livestock ranches but also documents the translocation of large carnivores from high conflict properties into conservation areas to assess this technique in biological and management terms.

Camera Trap Photo of Leopard Carrying Zebra Carcass. Photo courtesy N/a’an ku sê Foundation.

For example, field researchers employ a combination of GPS tracking collars, wildlife cameras  and direct observations to follow the animals’ fates for as long as possible after their release, in many cases for several years. This research yields important data on carnivore movements, survival, breeding status, prey selection, conflict with landowners, competition with other predators and the financial costs of intensive monitoring to determine the success rate of translocations.

As part of this monitoring scheme, N/a’an ku sê field researchers recently followed a four year-old leopard female, known as N027, that was released into a large nature reserve in December 2009. The female has since settled into a consistent range spanning approximately 223km2 in the vast mountain ranges of south-west Namibia. Following her  release this leopard has not caused any conflicts with local landowners; quite contrary, she has moved into a low impact eco-tourism area, feeds on wildlife and her presence is regarded as an asset. The lodge owners have occasionally been lucky enough to spot the leopard at a waterhole during night observations with their guests.

Camera Trap Image of Leopard at Zebra Carcass. Photo courtesy N/a’an ku sê Foundation.

As a sub-adult, female N027 was captured by a cattle rancher as part of indiscriminate carnivore eliminations and her mother was shot in the same trap cage a few days earlier. Marlice van Vuuren, director of N/a’an ku sê, retrieved the leopard and oversaw her subsequent minimum-contact management to avoid habituation to humans, and with the purpose of relocation and release. The medical examination showed that the tip of her tail had been cut off by the trap door but the veterinarians were convinced that this would not impact her hunting skills significantly. Dr Rudie van Vuuren, Marlice’s husband and co-director at N/a’an ku sê, made arrangements for her release in prey-rich complex of adjoining conservation areas. Once strong enough to cope with the stress associated with a translocation, the leopard was fitted with a GPS satellite collar and released.

N/a’an ku sê’s field researchers have closely followed this female for well over two years now, and in the process have documented crucial parameters of the translocation. During a field expedition in February, the first photograph of the animal could be taken since her release in 2009 and it shows that N027 remains in excellent physical condition. Whilst monitoring tagged carnivores intensively, the scientists also record valuable data on other predators. For example, one of the motion-triggered wildlife cameras placed in N027’s range area recently provided a rare series of exciting images of an un-collared, resident leopard male feeding on a juvenile Mountain zebra.

It is extremely important that applied management practices such as translocations are carefully and consistently monitored, and responsibly accounted for, including successes but also failures. Tracking collars, cameras and a lot of walking are usually required to achieve meaningful results. Yet only through such efforts will it be possible to improve carnivore management and develop evidence-based decision protocols. At the same time, monitoring allows us extraordinary insights into the ecology of these charismatic large predators.

Camera Trap Photo of Leopard Eating. Photo courtesy N/a’an ku sê Foundation.

National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative supports the field research in 2012 and thus helps to generate critical information for the benefit of Namibian landowners and the country’s large carnivores.




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Meet the Author
While his own research focuses on learning about and protecting the fossa, Madagascar's elusive top predator, Luke Dollar has also devoted himself to promoting smart and effective conservation throughout the world. As a part of this larger dedication, he also heads up National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. Learn More About Luke Dollar and His Work