Science

Helping Tristan Dickerson move a young male leopard stuck between two fences in northern Zululand, 2012. Photo credit: Samantha Sealie. 

Helping Tristan Dickerson move a young male leopard stuck between two fences in northern Zululand, 2012. Photo credit: Samantha Sealie. 

My passion from a young age has been to find out new information on the big cats I so cherish. I started my first project on leopards as an undergraduate of just 20 and over the past seven years my research interests have shifted from pure topics of diet and spatial ecology, to more applied ones of threats and co-existence with people. My academic training was in applied conservation management and I completed a three year National Diploma in Nature Conservation at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the southern Cape in 2010. I was then accepted to pursue a Masters degree in Zoology at the University of Oxford and Prof David Macdonald's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. To date my research has been collaborative, multi disciplinary and supported by the worlds leading big cat scientists. Below are a series of publications emanating from my undergraduate, masters and PhD research. Cover photo: Brett Pearson.  

 

 

Track the impact of kenya's ivory burn - nature (june 2016)

On the 30 April 2016 the Kenyan government set alight 106 tons of ivory in Nairobi. Estimated to be worth an estimated $US 220 million, the intention of the burn (and the ones before it) was to send a message to poachers and consumers, that ivory use will no longer be tolerated. There is no doubt that the intention of such an action is laudable but its consequences are largely unknown. Our team from the University of Queensland (led by Dr Duan Biggs) decided to write this piece in order to call for scientists and policy makers to assess what such burns achieve in policy circles, ivory consumer markets and also production factories in China.

This research was published in the journal NATURE and is available at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v534/n7606/full/534179a.html

 

 

scent lure effect on camera-trap based leopard density estimates - plos one (april 2016)

Increasing detection probability during camera-trapping is a challenge in many environments and our research suggests scent lures do not boost the number of leopard detections needed to increase the precision of estimates. Here the author examines a set of fresh leopard tracks. 

Increasing detection probability during camera-trapping is a challenge in many environments and our research suggests scent lures do not boost the number of leopard detections needed to increase the precision of estimates. Here the author examines a set of fresh leopard tracks. 

In 2012 I led an experiment with Panthera's Munyawana Leopard Project to examine the effect of scent lures on the precision of camera-trap based leopard density estimates. Camera-trap surveys of leopards are (along with the genotpying of their droppings) the best way to count this elusive big cat. However camera-trap surveys are expensive and are only efficient if one can obtain an adequate number of leopard photographs from camera-traps. This can be done in potentially three ways, 1) increase the number of camera traps deployed in the field, 2) extend survey length or 3) attract leopards to camera-traps. We tested the third option in this study and found the number of leopard detections did not increase with the deployment of scent lures (made from aged prey entrails) during our camera-trap survey when compared to a non baited survey. Leopard density remained nearly the same and the precision of the estimate did not improve with the use of scent lures. Baiting using carcasses may be a better option however this is also an incredibly arduous task and an expensive one. We recommend future researchers balance an adequate number of camera-traps with a short enough survey period to ensure demographic closure. 

This research was published in the journal PloS One and is available at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0151033

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prey of the persian leopard panthera pardus saxicolor in a mixed forest steppe landscape in north eastern iran mammalia felidae - zoology in the middle east (february 2016)

In 2012 I collaborated with Elmira Sharbafi and Mohammad Farhadinia's team in Iran to better understand the prey use of leopards in a temperate zone of north eastern Iran. Leopards in Iran are the world's biggest and easily surpass 75 kilograms. In this paper we demonstrate that leopards in Golestan National Park have a diet which is comprised of > 50% wild boar (a large and formidable suid with well adapted anti-predator defence strategies). Conflict events around the national park also appear to be relatively low and this is supported by the diet analysis. These results are the first examination of Persian leopard prey use in a temperate zone, anywhere in their current range. 

This research was published in Zoology in the Middle East and is available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Alexander_Braczkowski/contributions

Persian Leopard Program leader Mohammad Farhadinia with an immobilized leopard in the mountains of Iran. Photo credit: Arash Moharrami.

Persian Leopard Program leader Mohammad Farhadinia with an immobilized leopard in the mountains of Iran. Photo credit: Arash Moharrami.


 

Rosettes, Remingtons and Reputation: Establishing Potential Determinants of Leopard (Panthera pardus) Trophy Prices Across Africa - African journal of wildlife research (September 2015)

In 2014 I worked closely with Dr Guy Balme, Leopard program director at Panthera and a team of Oxford scientists in assessing potential driving forces which govern leopard hunt prices across the African continent. The trophy hunting of big cats is extremely controversial and there have been numerous proposals made by scientists to mediate population survival and revenue generation. One of these proposals has been to hunt older animals. This from an ecological perspective enhances population viability as older male animals have already contributed genetically to the population at large, and have protected their cubs to a point where they can disperse, find a home and ultimately survive to breeding age. This research was aimed at assessing just how important factors like trophy size, hunt success and hunting outfitter (the people who sell leopard hunts) reputation are in driving leopard hunt prices across Africa. Our results suggest trophy size, hunt success and quota size are unimportant determinants of leopard hunt prices. Instead, outfitter reputation (measured by record trophies taken of all hunted species) and the number of charismatic species (eg. sable, lion and buffalo) offered within a package are important. Our results suggest there are other factors which could be important to outfitters in setting prices and in determining the popularity of hunt destinations in Africa. 

This research was published in the African Journal of Wildlife Research and is available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publications?ev=nav_pubs

 

 

Who bites the bullet first? The susceptibility of leopards to trophy hunting - PloS one (april 2015)

Gauging the susceptibility of African leopards to trophy hunting could be an important first step for further research into using harvest composition as a metric for population trend. This could be particularly useful in places where we have no information on leopard numbers but they are hunted. In this study I used population survey data collected by the Munyawana Leopard Project (2005-2011) to gauge the statistical likelihood of different leopard cohorts encountering hunters in the field. With support from Panthera and Oxford scientists our paper showed that adult male and female leopards move similarly through landscapes where they are likely to encounter hunters, but males are the most susceptible to hunting because they are preferred by trophy hunters due to their impressive appearance. We determined hunter preference for leopard age/sex groups by sending out a set of photographic surveys which they were asked to score on a desirability index. This project incorporated both social and ecological models to assess an important applied question on leopards in Africa. 

This research was published in PloS One and can be downloaded at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0123100

This study made use of four camera-trap surveys carried out between 2005 - 2011 in combination with a series of social preference surveys sent to 39 trophy hunters.

This study made use of four camera-trap surveys carried out between 2005 - 2011 in combination with a series of social preference surveys sent to 39 trophy hunters.

I was mentored by Tristan Dickerson, Panthera's leopard programme coordinator on the technical aspects of camera-trapping for science. Photo credit: Steve Winter.

I was mentored by Tristan Dickerson, Panthera's leopard programme coordinator on the technical aspects of camera-trapping for science. Photo credit: Steve Winter.

 

Observations of leopard and caracal responses to novel scents in Sa - IUCN Cat news (spring 2013)

Numerous studies have tested the effect of commercially available perfumes on big cats and how they might help in attracting them to camera-traps and hair snares. The authors of these reported Calvin Klein’s Obsession and Chanel No5 were effective in getting cats to sniff, cheek rub and whirl (a weird rolling behaviour!). However, these studies were mainly done in zoos. Here we report on some of the first recorded behaviours  by leopards and caracal in the wild during a camera-trapping study in South Africa'’s southern Cape. Leopards and caracal sniffed, cheek rubbed and even licked rocks scented with several perfume and cologne varieties (e.g. Lentheric I Love Vanilla, Junique and Dolce & Gabanna The One). 

Our results showed that leopards and caracal stop and exhibit conspicuous behaviours at scent stations, allowing remote cameras to obtain a number of high quality photographs for use in capture-recapture studies.

The results of this research were published in the IUCN Cat Specialist Group Newsletter and are available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publications?ev=nav_pubs

 

 

 

Applicability of Age-Based Hunting Regulations for African Leopards - plos one (april 2012)

I collaborated with Dr Guy Balme and Dr Luke Hunter from the Panthera Foundation in 2011 to assess the potential of using age-based regulations to better leopard hunting policy in Africa. Using a collection of images of known age leopards from South Africa's Sabi-Sands, we compiled a questionnaire to test the ability of hunters, field guides and scientists to age leopards. Our results suggest there is considerable scope for using age-based regulations to improve leopard hunting in Africa as a) leopards have clear physical attributes which change as they get older (facial scarring, size of their neck fold and ear condition), b) respondents could age older leopards better than younger ones and c) there is considerable scope to improve aging ability with training.

This research was published in PloS One and can be downloaded at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0035209

Photograph presentation types used in the photographic survey to test the sexing and aging ability of guides, trophy hunters and scientists. Note the ear damage, facial scarring and nose pigmentation in the portrait photograph. These are all morphological cues which can be used to age leopards. Photo credit: PloS One. 

Photograph presentation types used in the photographic survey to test the sexing and aging ability of guides, trophy hunters and scientists. Note the ear damage, facial scarring and nose pigmentation in the portrait photograph. These are all morphological cues which can be used to age leopards. Photo credit: PloS One. 

 

The diet of caracal in two areas of the southern cape, south africa as determined by scat analysis - african journal of wildlife research (october 2012)

Despite its wide distribution and importance as a conflict species, there is a paucity of research on the caracal in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo credit: Pieter Van Der Merwe.

Despite its wide distribution and importance as a conflict species, there is a paucity of research on the caracal in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo credit: Pieter Van Der Merwe.

One of my first projects in the southern Cape, examined the diet of caracal, a small but agile cat with a big appetite for rodents. The majority of research on caracal has been done in protected areas. We broke the mould by looking at what they ate in two highly modified habitats in the southern Cape (the species' southern most extent of its global range). One was dominated by pine plantations, the other sheep farms. Damien Coulson analysed 40 droppings from the Fransmanshoek conservancy while a team of motivated conservation degree students and myself collected and analysed samples from the George region. Our findings suggest caracal subsist heavily on the vlei rat in both areas. Interestingly, we also found evidence of bushbuck (probably fawns) use in George and small carnivores such as mongoose being used in Fransmanshoek. It is likely that the pine plantations and ecotonal areas have led to the establishment of a productive rodent food source for the smaller carnivores of the Cape.

This research was published in the African Journal of Wildlife Research, get it for free at: https://www.researchgate.net/publications?ev=nav_pubs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diet of leopards in the southern Cape, South Africa - african journal of ecology (march 2012)

There is little data on leopards in the Afrotemperate forests and farmlands of the southern Cape. This research project provided the first information on leopard prey preferences in the region. We used a combination of hair microscopy (collected from leopard droppings) and camera-trapping to assess leopard diet. Using 10 camera-traps which ran for 1026 camera days in forest, plantation and farmland in a 100 square kilometre area we found leopards preferred bushbuck, blue duiker and domestic cat. Cattle, grysbok and primates were avoided by leopards. Our study's findings are confirmed by farmers in the region who live with leopards in relative harmony.

This research was published in the African Journal of Ecology and can be downloaded at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263114912_Diet_of_leopards_in_the_southern_Cape_South_Africa

Mnyamezeli, a female leopard we first photographed in 2008 had at least three sets of cubs over the period in which we monitored her. Cape leopards are the worlds smallest variant weighing between 20 - 45 kg. Photo credit: Brian Du Preez.

Mnyamezeli, a female leopard we first photographed in 2008 had at least three sets of cubs over the period in which we monitored her. Cape leopards are the worlds smallest variant weighing between 20 - 45 kg. Photo credit: Brian Du Preez.

Assisting Jeannine McManus with a GPS leopard collaring in 2008. Photo credit: Natalie Baker.

Assisting Jeannine McManus with a GPS leopard collaring in 2008. Photo credit: Natalie Baker.