There is no doubt that leopards are near the top of “must-see” animals for almost every safari-goer – their grace, power and beauty, combined with their elusive nature ensure that even the most seasoned guests never tire of spending time with these incredible cats. As hard as they can be to find (Singita Sabi Sand aside!), leopards’ adaptability has meant they are largely assumed to be widespread both inside and outside of protected areas. This has resulted in the species receiving little conservation concern to date, yet emerging data show that in reality, populations are in freefall across much of their range.
Like many large carnivores, getting accurate numbers on leopard populations is challenging – they are wide-ranging, occur at low densities and are largely nocturnal. Typical wildlife surveys from the air or roads don’t work. However, the fact that each leopard has a unique spot pattern means that they can be identified individually using photographs from camera traps. This allows scientists to use statistical models (called Spatially Explicit Capture Recapture Models) to work out how many leopards are in a given area, as well as the size of the area that their home ranges cover. They then calculate population density (number of cats divided by the area), and it’s this number that allows comparisons for the same population over time (temporal) or between populations in different areas (spatial).
In South Africa, Panthera, the world’s leading wild cat conservation NGO, has been mandated to develop a national leopard monitoring plan and, to date, has carried out over 70 camera trap surveys at 30 sites across the country. Much of the survey work has been outside of protected areas, the results of which have led to the conclusion that the species is in trouble and far less resilient than previously thought. However, to work out how best to protect these declining populations, we need to understand leopard behaviour and population dynamics in a population protected from human persecution – a subject on which, until quite recently, we had surprisingly little information.
Camera trap photo of a leopard. Each survey point has two cameras set up on a game trail or road, to photograph both sides of the cat, allowing for accurate individual identification.
This is where the Sabi Sand region comes into the picture. The fact that guides have been following individual animals, documenting sightings and understanding family trees for such a long period of time has created a unique data set that is of incredible value to scientists. Recognising this, Dr Guy Balme, Director of Panthera’s leopard programme, started an initiative a few years ago to collect and collate all these historical records. He subsequently created a database system with a portal for guides to record sightings – thus creating a spatial and behavioural record of all known leopards in the Sabi Sand.
Singita’s guiding team submits data on the system on a monthly basis (for leopard and other key species), and in total, 33,953 sightings of 25 species were logged on the system across the entire Sabi Sand region for 2016. This included almost 9,000 sightings of 142 individual leopards! “We now have a database that includes more than 60,000 leopard sightings, without doubt the most extensive dataset ever compiled on the species!” says Dr Balme.
The data collected have contributed to scientific papers on leopards covering topics such as reproductive success, infanticide (killing of cubs by rival males), benefits of hoisting prey, lion-leopard competition, prey selection and variation in parental care by female leopards. All of these help us build a picture of what we need to do for leopards to ensure their long term survival. In addition, Panthera sends maps and additional reports are sent to all the participating lodges on a monthly basis. Two sample maps showing the Singita properties and sightings of male and female leopards recorded by our guides in 2016 are included below.
A final note, in order to motivate lodges to submit sightings data, Panthera pays a monthly stipend to each guiding team. Singita’s team very generously chose to donate this money back to Panthera, directly into their Furs for Life project – a highly innovative programme that uses fake leopard furs to reduce the demand for real furs from the Shembe religious group in South Africa. Singita’s contribution pays for 6 fake furs per month, potentially saving at least 72 leopards from being killed for their skins each year.
At Singita, we are privileged to be able to share space with some of the best protected and best known leopard populations in Africa. It’s good to know that we are now contributing to the conservation of this magnificent species well beyond our own boundaries.