Monitoring the invisible on the Leopard Survey

A great advantage of working on the Panthera Leopard Survey is the incredible window it gives us into the world of one of the most elusive animals.

The most widespread of the big cats, Leopards are highly adaptable and can be found in a wide range of environments across the globe, even in extreme climates ranging from the Kgalagadi Desert to the snowy forests of Siberia. A key factor in the success of the species, is their uncanny ability to go unnoticed. For the most part, Leopards lead elusive lives and for good reason. They have many enemies, including humans.

Leopard cubs playing in front of a camera
Leopard cubs playing in front of a camera trap.

Leopards are hunted to fuel an illegal skin trade market and often succumb to direct or indirect persecution by farm and game reserve land owners. They have also been known to occur around urban areas and are considered problem animals due to the dangers they may pose to human life as well as livestock.

Large predators such as Lions and Hyenas also pose a competitive threat to Leopard and especially their cubs, as they share similar habitats and resources. Leopards are solitary animals that require immense stealth when hunting. Secrecy is therefore imperative to their survival and is learned from a young age as Leopard cubs develop the art of laying low. While this elusive behavior helps conceal them from danger, it also poses a challenge when it comes to monitoring them.

Traditional monitoring techniques, such as direct observation, are somewhat ineffective for Leopards due to their elusive behavior, wide home ranges, and ability to move in and out of protected areas. Leopards are also extremely difficult to capture to allow for the fitting of tracking collars. In addition, male Leopards have a dewlap which enlarges as they age, meaning that they have to be regularly recaptured to avoid the collar becoming too tight. This is a highly invasive process that inevitably causes stress to any captured animals.

Camera trapping is therefore one of the most effective ways to monitor Leopards. The Panthera Leopard Survey is run in association with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Wildlife ACT. The data from camera trap images is used to determine Leopard densities, demographics and population trends at various key sites in KwaZulu-Natal. This information is utilized in provincial and national management planning and decision making.

Leopard cubs playing in front of a camera

In addition to this invaluable data, camera trap images afford us the ability to witness aspects of the hidden lives of this incredible predator, which we must fight to conserve. In the images above, two rambunctious Leopard cubs can be seen playing in front of a camera. Leopards need to be agile and flexible, and play behavior enables young Leopards to develop their muscles and learn valuable skills which they will later need for hunting and ultimately their survival.

Text by Raeesah Chandlay
All Photos Property of Panthera