Post Submitted by Joseph Lemeris.
It’s daybreak, near the edge of the Namib Desert in Namibia. We step out of a dusty Land Rover with our cameras, binoculars, and radio-telemetry equipment, and head straight up one of the numerous mountain ridges which surround us on all sides. The morning sun casts a stunning glow on the landscape, making the rigorous trek beautiful as well.
When we reach the top, we scan our antenna across the horizon, listening for the faint but distinct ‘click-click’ from the receiver. After several passes, we hear it – coming from the southwest. Looking out, we see a seemingly vacant landscape; the dry season vegetation sparse except for one dense tract running tightly along a perennial riverbed. We all agree the clicking is likely pointing us to that riverbed, where we hope to find what we are looking for: Lightning, one of the N/a’an ku se Foundation’s most successful translocated leopards.
The use of translocation as a tool to curb human-carnivore conflict has come under scrutiny in recent years, and rightly so: if not performed under near-perfect conditions, a host of issues can arise for both the animal and the landowners requesting its removal. Not only can translocation present dangers for the animal (including competition from resident carnivores, lack of prey, and injury during translocation), but it may actually contribute to further livestock loss by the landowner over the long-term, drawing new leopards in to fill the vacant range.
N/a’an ku se’ head of research, Florian Weise (two-time Big Cats Initiative grant recipient), recognized these problems with translocation operations, but saw the need for a more structured system of translocation informed by available data, rather than discarding it as an option outright. This need led to a recent study (“A Home Away From Home: Insights From Successful Leopard (Panthera pardus) Translocations“) which examined leopard movements and behaviors from both resident and successfully translocated leopards, like Lightning. Interestingly, the team found that translocated leopards exhibited ecological traits very similar to non-translocated leopards. They predominantly fed on wildlife (only one leopard preyed on livestock after release, which were illegally herded onto the release reserve). They were equally successful in terms of survival and reproduction. They established similarly sized home ranges after release, and did not home back to their original range. So, why were these translocations successful when so many have failed?
Put simply: location, location, location. Florian’s team focused on identifying suitable translocation areas prior to releasing a problem leopard, believing that most translocation failures are a result of poor release-site suitability. To help tackle this undertaking, the team developed the Carnivore Translocation Suitability Tool (CaTSuiT) to identify suitable release sites using geospatial data. Florian’s research revealed that ideal release sites should be areas where leopards are known to occur in low or medium densities, away from urban centers, and within known protected areas. Areas should also not be smaller than 875 square kilometers (to accommodate home range size), nor closer than 200 kilometers to the original capture site. Using these conservative attributes, CaTSuiT estimated over 117,000 square kilometers of suitable land in Namibia, potentially capable of supporting around 87 leopard translocations over 1.5 years.
However, there are additional considerations to take into account before releasing a leopard. Was a leopard released into the area within the last 1.5 years? Is the sex ratio of leopards in your release area unknown? Is the ‘problem’ leopard under 18 months old, or a known habitual livestock raider? Do neighboring property owners have an intolerant history with carnivores? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes,’ perhaps the translocation should be postponed or reconsidered as an option.
The successful translocations featured in Florian’s study contradict the numerous studies which question the legitimacy of translocation as a conservation tool, but by no means does it recommend translocation as a primary action. The costs of translocation can be enormous if performed on a regular basis, and even if they are completed successfully, they may not be sustainable for an organization with limited funds to take on. Instead, the study suggests that organizations focus on changing the behaviors of landowners by giving them the tools to raise livestock while being tolerant of carnivores. Translocations should only be performed after all other husbandry and land management strategies have failed, and should be conducted using strict protocols and site selection methods like those presented here.
Back near the edge of the Namib, we never caught sight of Lightning that morning, though we tracked her to within 50 meters before she vanished into the mountains. Still, we had the information we needed. Continuously monitoring the location and behaviors of translocated leopards after their release is another practice Florian’s team believes is vital to understanding what makes a successful translocation. They have been regularly tracking Lightning since she was released here in 2009, and they’ve learned that she’s maintained a stable home range, raised 3 cubs, and hasn’t preyed on livestock since.