Hunt for the black leopard continues

Launched in August last year, the Ingwe Leopard Project had the ambitious goal of finding a black leopard said to roam the Lydenburg area. No black leopard has yet been located, but five male adult leopards and four females have been found in an area of about 50,000ha. One female was seen together with two cubs estimated to be six months old. The leopards have been spotted by camera traps which have an infrared beam that triggers the camera when an animal walks by.

Gerrie Camacho, big cat specialist from the Mpumalanga Parks Board, says that he now has around 7,000 photographs of animals passing in front of the cameras. He has more than double that number of photographs containing images of insects and moving grass. The cameras are moved from place to place when necessary to cover a large area of land. This process has detected the same male leopard 13km away from where it was first spotted seven months ago, showing how large a leopard territory can be.

Although the research is not complete, Camacho says that a good deal of interesting information is being uncovered about leopards as well as the whole system. "This has been a quantum leap in the research of the system." He has observed that leopard behaviour seems to depend more on the availability of suitable habitat than on the amount of prey available. He says adjacent areas with similar prey density do not appear to have the same number of leopards if the habitat is different.

He has also observed that open grasslands often contain nomadic young male leopards that are just "making a living", possibly until they are powerful enough to occupy a better leopard habitat. Camacho believes that the models that are currently being used to estimate leopard numbers in the country are overnumbering the population. He says that the only other animal captured on film that seems to be continuously distributed in a variety of habitats is the brown hyena. Other predators snapped by the cameras include caracal, black backed jackals and honeybadgers, but these only occur in isolated patches.

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