25 August 2016

Them Spots

Some of you might be surprised to hear that I have never camera trapped a Leopard before. Well, technically speaking, until very recently.

Leopard (Luiperd - Panthera pardus) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

The reason these big cats stayed off my list isn't because they aren't around, but rather that I tend to be drawn to the smaller creatures. I also feel like every second camera trap research project is targeting Leopards of one form or another. I'm not saying the Leopard work isn't important, because it is valuable. It just feels like many of the smaller species often fall by the wayside.

But to get back on track, it all started while I was still away on holiday, at the end of May.

I'm not a huge fan of constantly checking my emails or other "social media" from a mobile phone, especially when I'm on holiday. However, since I was away form home for 2 weeks I decided to check my personal email after about a week went by. Just in case there where any emergencies. I scanned thought my inbox and an email from the reserve manager at Koeberg Nature Reserve caught my eye.

I stopped camera trapping at Koeberg a while back and wondered what the email might be about. She was asking whether I might have a few camera traps to spare because they might have found Leopard tracks on the reserve.

My cameras where at home gathering dust, so I told her I'll drop by the reserve when I get back home.

The reserve manager sent me this photo of a Leopard track (photo taken by a staff members)

We placed some cameras in areas she thought the Leopard might move through. Some interesting things have been happening on the reserve since I stopped camera trapping there. There has been a fire, and apparently the Springbok numbers have been dropping faster than usual.

The plot thickened a few days later with more reports of Leopard tracks. Then a dead Eland was found. The Eland was seemingly pulled into some vegetation for cover and might have been fed on.

I doubt that a Leopard would want to take on a healthy adult Eland, but maybe this individual was very old or sick and possibly died from natural causes when the Leopard happened upon it. Who knows, but things were getting interesting.

Video: What remained of the Eland carcass by the time I got there...

And then, a few days later the news came in that the Leopard was photographed on one of my camera traps!

What makes this Leopard interesting is that it appeared out of nowhere, in habitat that isn't what we would normally expect from the local "Cape Leopards" - which are usually associate with the mountainous areas in the Western Cape province.

As a species Leopards can be found in an incredibly wide range of habitats over most of Africa and into Asia. The dunes at Koeberg is definitely not outside the realm of possibilities. From my camera trapping results we know that there is a fair amount of small to medium-ish mammals on the reserve - such as Steenbok, Duiker and Springbok.

One theory is that this might not be a "Cape Leopard" from the mountains, but rather a "Namibian Leopard" more at home along the western coast of Southern Africa. There are some scarce reports of other Leopard sightings some distance higher up the coast, in the vicinity of the West Coast National Park.

I don't know if we will ever be able to know where it came from, or for how long it will stay, but my guess is that it might be sticking around in the area, at least for the time being.

Now, since Koeberg is open to the public to visit and have staff working at the power plant on a daily basis I have to just remind people not to get over excited and scared of being eaten alive. This cat has been in the area for a while before the reserve staff even became aware of it. It is very reclusive and direct conflict is incredibly unlikely. Leopards in general are also more active at night, so normal daytime visitors really don't have anything to fear.

My time back at Koeberg had a few more surprises in store (and as always also the one that got away). But more about that in the next posts.