Leopard Research at Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve

Pamushana | July 2020

Through a scholarship from the Malilangwe Trust, Allan Tarugara obtained a BSc Hons. in Forest Resources and Wildlife Management and is currently pursuing a PhD in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation with specific focus on leopard population and behavioural ecology.

Sporting a golden rosetted coat and a combination of grace, ferocity and strength, leopards are the perfect embodiment of feline beauty. Leopards are nocturnal and secretive making every sighting special to both the tourist and resident alike. The leopard has always held a special place at Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, Zimbabwe with the name Malilangwe meaning, “the call of the leopard” and the property being affectionately known as Leopard Hills. Leopards are a tourist attraction at Malilangwe and are among the property’s apex predators thereby creating tourism and ecological interest for research. Compared to other large carnivores at Malilangwe, leopards were understudied, reasons being they are solitary and often shy away from observers and therefore require methods of investigation that are more costly than conventional approaches.

Malilangwe is running a leopard monitoring program that has been ongoing for 10 years. The reserve periodically conducts baited camera trapping surveys to better understand the dynamics of the leopard population within its 490 km2 estate. Pioneered in 2010 by Christoffel Joubert and Dr. Bruce Clegg, follow-up surveys were conducted in 2014 and 2017. The baited camera trapping method uses a novel approach to arranging material at sampling stations. A leading pole is placed against the tree with a bait to the right side of a single camera trap. Leopards walking up the pole to access the bait consistently get their right side profiles photographed and from these, individuals can be identified. Advantages of the method include reducing hardware costs and sampling duration, improving age and sex determination and facilitating collection of body measurements of leopards from camera trap photographs. Baited camera trapping also provides interesting spill-over photographic information on leopards such as records of big toms or cubs, interactions with other carnivores, physical deformities and resilience to injuries and snaring.

The 2017 survey estimated the leopard population at Malilangwe at 61 (61-67) individuals, i.e. a density of 12.4 leopards per 100 km2 (second highest in southern Africa). The study used a total of 210 sampling stations distributed across Malilangwe using a stratified random sampling strategy to survey the population over seven separate sampling events, each comprising 30 trapping stations and lasting 14 days. In addition to the population research, leopards are sometimes collared to collect behaviour and home range data for a specified period. In 2017, ten leopards (five female and five male) were fitted with GPS collars in a study ran concurrently with the baited camera trapping survey. The collars included drop-off technology and were all remotely detached from the animals after the duration of the study. Leopards are dangerous and all research protocols that involve sedating and handling of animals are done by a licensed resident para-veterinarian following safe, humane and ethical guidelines. The average home range size for leopards at Malilangwe is 46.4 km2 (range =  9.0 – 112.1 km2) with smaller home ranges found in wetter habitats and larger ones in drier parts of the reserve. Impala form the main prey base of leopards at Malilangwe while lions and spotted hyaenas are the main competitors. Outputs from research work on leopard distributions on the reserve are openly shared with the Guiding Department of Singita Pamushana to help complement their search efforts for guests’ leopard sightings.

The Peter Goodman Research Centre houses the research arm of the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, Zimbabwe. The Centre has been operational for 25 years and is headed by Dr. Bruce Clegg, a seasoned ecologist with broad interests in large herbivore and carnivore ecology. The Centre periodically provides scholarships, internships and graduate trainee development programs for select undergraduate and postgraduate students from communities surrounding the reserve and elsewhere across Zimbabwe and beyond. Over the years the Centre has funded 26 students. In addition to its own research interests, the Centre also provides supervision and technical support to students under its ambit and has to date produced 41 peer reviewed journal articles ranging from megaherbivores, ungulate and carnivore population ecology, vegetation surveys, limnological studies to invertebrates. Links to published leopard research at Malilangwe by Tarugara et al. are provided below: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00627 and https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.7630

A bold male leopard from the Mabhakweni area, feeding during the day.

A young female male leopard from the Stables area.