What would you do if you came face-to-face with a 175 pound, agitated leopard? If you’re conservation power-couple Marlice and Rudie van Vuuren, you’ve been on the receiving end of such a scenario about 112 times.
As conservationists and National Geographic Big Cat Initiative grantees, the van Vuurens are on the frontlines of human-wildlife conflict and have translocated more than a hundred big cats in less than a decade in order to mitigate that conflict. Watch the video to see how one epic leopard translocation unfolds.
National Geographic also sat down with the couple at their wildlife sanctuary, N/a’an ku se, to talk about their work.
National Geographic: How did you get started in conservation work? What was your inspiration?
Marlice: When we started N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary ten years ago, we got in cheetahs and leopards, and we realized we could not only take animals in, we had to deal with the source of the problem. Farmers normally would catch cheetahs and leopards with capture cages. It’s almost like a farming practice—everybody in Namibia has a capture cage or two. The farmers would start putting the cages out the minute they start losing livestock to the carnivores.
National Geographic: How does your Rapid Response Unit get involved?
Marlice: The rapid response team will get a call, usually it’s about either a leopard or a cheetah, and we analyze the problem first—what did this poor animal do wrong?—and then we will make a decision what the next step would be. Does this animal need a collar, or can we release the animal without a collar on the same property, or do we need to remove the animal?
Rudie: The first prize for us is to release that animal on the spot. If we can convince the farmer that this is not really a problem animal and that it’s an opportunistic livestock raider, then we sometimes can release it on sight. Second prize for us would be if the farmer agrees that we collar and release the animal there and then, and then we get data downloads from the collar every day. The collar has VHF and satellite units and we can see exactly where the animal is. We share that with the farmer and he often shares that with his neighbors. He starts seeing how these animals move, we inform him when we see a kill pattern on the downloads, and ask him to go and look at what is the prey that that animal caught, is it natural prey or is it livestock? This is how we engage with the farmers and how we work with them. Farmers are some of the best conservationists in this country.
One of our last resorts is to translocate that animal to a protected area. If we do that, we have to make sure that animal goes into an area where there’s no impact on other predators in the area, where there’s enough prey, where there’s enough water, where conflict won’t reoccur, and that it’s at a sufficient distance so that they don’t show homing instinct.
National Geographic: Why is there such high likelihood of having big cats on farmland in Namibia?
Rudie: Cheetahs and leopards in Namibia occur mostly outside of protected areas, and that is mostly commercial farmland, so the chances of conflict are very high because the farmers, that’s their livelihoods. After we’ve collared and released the cheetah or leopard, we would ask farmers to name their cat. It’s that personal relationship that the farmer actually starts building up with the animal. We have a few farmers that if we one day didn’t send a data download from the collar, they would phone and say, “Where is my cheetah? Where is my leopard download?” When we talk about human-wildlife conflict we always look at the wildlife side of things, but there’s a human component.
Marlice: Remember, we are both Namibian. We have our own cattle here, we have our own sheep, and our own goats here. We practice what we preach. We don’t go out trying to say, “You shouldn’t do it like this and you should do it like that.” We basically go there and say, “This is what works, try it or leave it, and speak to your neighbors.” We come there as a farmer and somebody that just wants to help. We don’t want to tell you what you’re doing wrong, we come with options.
Rudie: In the nine years, we’ve learned more from farmers than we’ve learned from anyone else. You need to talk to people that are on the ground and know nature.
National Geographic: Why should someone across the world somewhere—who may never see a leopard in the wild—care about this?
Rudie: If we lose these carnivores, it will have severe effects to the ecosystem. We’re going to have increased human disease. We’ve got swine flu, we’ve got HIV, we’ve got many other diseases that started because species disappear from the ecosystem. If carnivores disappear from our ecosystem, baboon numbers will go through the roof. If baboon numbers go through the roof, disease transmission between baboons and humans can increase and we could have another disease that could influence the whole world, and people will trace it back to Africa because leopards disappeared. I don’t think people realize what the impact is if we lose a species. Everybody is at the disadvantage, not only the people that love them.
For more on big cats, tune in to Big Cat Week, premiering Monday, Feb. 20, at 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD and learn more about the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, a global initiative that supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild. Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at natgeo.org/grants.