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Leopard camera traps and research

5 June 2009

Since mid-2008, University of Pretoria student Lourens Swanepoel has been conducting research into leopard populations in the Waterberg. One of his study areas is Lapalala Wilderness and after almost a year of field research, some of the exciting results from Lapalala can finally be revealed.

Leopard (Panthera pardus) are renowned for their elusive nature and are notorious for being difficult to spot. They are extremely adept at remaining hidden and unless they are very well habituated to human presence, they tend to stay well away from people. This makes finding them in a prime habitat 36,000 ha reserve such as Lapalala, quite a task.

But now, the grueling task of placing and monitoring camera traps around the Lapalala Wilderness Reserve has paid off. Through the wonders of modern technology, such as infrared capabilities, the secret lives of leopards and other secretive species as well, are slowly beginning to be revealed.

Through these photographs, Lourens has managed to identify 12 different leopard that include Lapalala, or at least parts of Lapalala, as their territories. It is extremely hard to tell the sexes of the various leopard from photographs. However, each leopard has unique rosette patterns or markings on its fur and this helps to identify and narrow down individuals to certain areas and territories.

To date, over 10,000 photographs have been taken on Lourens’ remote cameras for his study, and there have been some stunning results. Out of the total amount of pictures taken, 3000 photographs are of an assorted variety of animals apart from Leopard that triggered the infrared beams. And some of these are very elusive indeed…brown hyena (Parahyena brunnea), aardvark (Orycteropus afer), African civet, (Civettictis civetta), caracal (caracal caracal), small spotted genet (Genetta genetta), bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus), black rhino (Diceros bicornis), porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis), honey badger (Mellivora capensis) and hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) to name a few.

Lourens’ camera’s are also being used for other studies as well. Students from the University of Utrecht have been conducting research on brown hyena and have also managed to obtain some stunning results from the camera traps. One of the best sequences of all, contained nocturnal action from both brown hyena and leopard! Cameras were set up to monitor a zebra carcass by University of Utrecht students Belinda and Alma.

During the course of the evening, the scents of decay drifted over the Lapalala landscape and attracted a brown hyena, who came and fed peaceably for a while. Suddenly, at 22:14., the hyena departed and the reason was soon apparent. A leopard had also picked up the scent and arrived on the scene a few minutes later at 22:31! As the dominant predator in Lapalala, the leopard had scavenging rights over the carcass. Brown hyenas are no match for a leopard in terms of strength, size or fighting capabilities. The leopard wins hands down.

After 11 minutes of feeding, the leopard had its fill and moved off at 22:42. When deemed safe to return, the brown hyena reclaimed the carcass and fed in peace until dawn broke and reluctantly left the abundant food source to return to its den.

This is one of many scientific studies that are on-going at the reserve and more about some of these exciting studies will be revealed on the Lapalala website in the coming months ahead.

Conservation, science and technology are working hand-in-hand at Lapalala Wilderness.

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