By Laurel Serieys, Joleen Broadfield, and Max Allen
A portrait of a caracal from our study area in Cape Town (Photo by Urban Caracal Project)
In running the Urban Caracal Project there have been a number of learning opportunities. One of our most important insights is that by prioritizing public outreach we have built a strong community support group without which the project would be impossible. The community support has not just been integral to large-scale funding efforts, but also help with special project needs that sometimes seem impossible. It is when the community has stepped up that some of the most gratifying and memorable leaps in project success have happened. In our case, the African proverb of “it takes a village” is particularly apt, as it has taken a village to make the Urban Caracal Project successful.
The story of Tyger, a young male caracal that was the 16th that we radio-collared, is memorable on multiple fronts. First off, he is a survivor. As is common for our urban caracals, Tyger was hit by a car in the northern suburbs of Cape Town late last year. While most vehicle collisions end in death for caracals, Tyger was lucky that he escaped with only one broken leg. Perhaps more importantly, he was lucky that the community took action to ensure his survival; community members called the Cape of Good Hope SPCA who brought him in for rehabilitation. “Only a broken leg” is not a promising diagnosis for a wild carnivore because their survival depends their ability to travel far to hunt and find mates. For the lucky Tyger, however, the SPCA was optimistic that if the leg could heal, he would survive. And so the SPCA worked tirelessly to rehabilitate him, first with surgery to fix his broken leg, and then careful monitoring and feeding him as he healed and rebuilt his strength.
Within a couple of months Tyger was ready to be radio-collared and released. With the help of more community members, South Africa National Parks, the SPCA, the City of Cape Town and a handful of international volunteers, we were able to release him into the Tygerberg Reserve. This reserve is the nearest patch of natural habitat that is large enough to be able to support caracals near the suburbs where Tyger was initially found. Because of our limited number of available collars, we used a radio-collar that had only half of it’s battery life left after it was recovered from the body of another caracal (Berg Wind, who had died from disease). But it would allow us to monitor his movements briefly, and whether he survived his release post-rehabilitation.
We expected that Tyger would remain in, or nearby, the reserve until his radio-collar ran out of battery power. But after only 10 days of laying low in the urban reserve, Tyger started an unexpected journey. He found a narrow strip of relatively connected habitat to make his exit from the reserve (map above), and then headed straight north all the way to Malmesbury! All told this was a 55 kilometer trek, suggesting that his leg was not a hindrance.
Tyger himself taught us important lessons. He is the only caracal we have radio-collared outside of our isolated, urban Cape Peninsula study area. As a young two year old male, he appears to have been in dispersal mode (looking for an unoccupied territory to call his own). Successful dispersal is important for wild cats because it is a natural deterrent to inbreeding in populations. Our data is suggesting that our Cape Peninsula population is severely isolated by urbanization, and so far we have not seen any individuals successfully disperse outside of our study area. Our early data suggests that in this landscape isolated by a sea of water and dense urban development, successful dispersal may not be possible.
Tyger’s story could be one of success. As we expected, Tyger’s collar reached the end of its battery life in mid-March, and at that time he seemed to have settled down in the Malmesbury area. The last of his movements spanning approximately 6 weeks suggest he was exploring a potential territory of his own.
To ensure that the project caracals are not stuck wearing radio-collars for the entirety of their lives, we use multiple measures to ensure that the collars drop off. We then attempt to recover the collars to ensure it has indeed fallen off of the animal and to recover the data from the collar that we could not remotely access. When the battery on Tyger’s collar died we were able to send a signal remotely, through a web interface, to the radio-collar to have it fall off. The “drop-off” activation through the website has proven effective on other caracal studies in South Africa, but it doesn’t always work. Therefore, we followed up to recover the collar in the areas where Tyger’s radio-collar collected data. We spent days and days driving around trying to hone in on a radio-signal. Unfortunately we had no luck; we were not even able to hear the signal.
In cases like these, where we cannot hear the radio-signal from collar from the ground, it can be more effective to fly over the area to listen for the collar from above. As lead researchers on the project, we’d never even considered flights because of our limited budget. But we grew desperate to recover the collar, and with the knowledge of how far our community had carried the project to that point, we got creative. We reached out to our community supporters once again and posted a request on our Facebook page for volunteer help in scheduling a flight. Amazingly, our community came through yet again, and Ross Leighton and Stephan Moser from The Morningstar Aviation Club were able to get us up in the air within 12 hours of our Facebook post.
Despite the help, we were not able to find the radio-collar. But after the flight we could take solace in the fact that we had done all we could. After all our exhaustive searching, we now believe the collar fell off of Tyger and was then buried in sand. This is a problem we have seen in the past, and as the collar gets buried in sand the signal became too faint to hear.
The caracals on our project are resilient and adaptable. They seem to do remarkably well even in landscapes fragmented by agriculture and urbanization. But because this is in an environment where increasing fragmentation is occurring, it is important to try to retain what habitat connectivity remains; not just for caracals, but for the many other species that are trying to survive in the urbanizing landscape. Urbanization is the principle threat to global biodiversity conservation, and habitat loss and modification due to urbanization is going to continue at a rapid pace across the globe. It is important that if we want to try to protect biodiversity in the changing landscape, we protect areas that animals can move through to maintain functional habitat connectivity in fragmented landscapes.
It seems daily that we find ourselves counting our blessings to be doing the work within the supportive community of Cape Town. Our Cape Town “village” has helped this project function on many fronts, financially and logistically, as well as with their enthusiastic interest! So the project continues to survive and even thrive despite the various challenges that always crop up on large field projects.
The Urban Caracal Project is a cooperation between the Cape Leopard Trust, the University of Cape Town, University of California, Santa Cruz, the City of Cape Town, and South Africa National Parks, and the many private landowners around Cape Town. For updates on the project check out our project page: http://www.urbancaracal.org/ and give our facebook page a like: www.Facebook.com/UrbanCaracal.