Thursday, February 25, 2010

South Africa: Are leopards protected or aren't they?

THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT FEBRUARY 21 2010

Are they protected or aren’t they?

As the leopards of Phinda in KwaZulu-Natal pay scant attention to reserve boundaries,they were at a high risk of being killed legally or illegally. The Mun-Ya-Wana project and the local conservation authority have devised a new regulatory system to safeguard the big cats,writes Guy Balme

HUDDLED in the front seat of the open Land Rover, I could not get warm. Cold air lanced through my jacket and the layers I had piled on to survive a winter night of tracking leopards.

My motivation was fading fast. The young female I had been following since the previous afternoon had melted into a dense thicket and only the constant beep of her radiocollar reassured me that she had not disappeared entirely. One can stare at dead vegetation for only so long.

Dawn was approaching and a cup of warming coffee beckoned. As I reached for the ignition, an unexpected sound stopped my hand. Soft but unmistakable chirps – between a growl and a mew - were coming from the thicket. Carefully I repositioned the vehicle and there, clambering among the branches, was the smallest leopard cub I had ever seen.

Its spots were barely discernible and it looked no more than three weeks old. It stumbled on to the ground and approached the Land Rover one shaky step at a time. The pint-sized bundle of fur presented no danger, but an anxious mother leopard would have been a different story. Thankfully, a sharp hiss from the female sent the cub scrambling for cover. Slowly I backed away and turned for home, elated with the discovery of a new generation of Zululand leopards.

Such sightings were rare in the early days of the Mun-Ya-Wana Leopard Project. Located in Phinda Private Game Reserve, the project was started in 2002 by Luke Hunter, now the executive director of Panthera, an organisation dedicated to conserving the world’s wild cats.

At the time, Zululand represented the proverbial Wild West for leopards, which were targeted by almost every community in the region – cattle ranchers, trophy hunters and Zulu pastoralists, as well as poachers who killed them for traditional uses, from ceremonial dress to folk medicines. But that was all we knew.

Until then, leopards had been well studied only in a few protected areas where they were insulated from human contact, so we had no information on the consequences of high levels of persecution. If we were going to tackle those consequences, we would be taking on everyone in Zululand who had always killed leopards, essentially without restriction. To do this we would need the support of strong science, so we launched the most intensive effort to date to understand the ecology of leopards in a patchwork of protected and non-protected areas. By using radio-collars and remotely triggered cameratraps and interviewing various communities, we gradually built up a picture of the extent of leopard killing in the region - and whether the population could withstand it.

Although leopards are protected in Phinda and several other private and state-run reserves in KwaZulu- Natal, problems arise when they range into surrounding livestock farms, game ranches and tribal authority land. The electrified fencing around most protected areas does little to slow down the big cats. They simply glide under the fences or go over them. Thus, very few leopards in Zululand are permanently protected, and almost all are exposed to human persecution at some time in their lives.

Legally, leopards can only be killed by private individuals who have either a destruction permit or a CITES tag issued by the local conservation authority, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW). Destruction permits are granted to remove confirmed “problem” leopards. In principle, a land owner has to prove that a leopard represents a threat to his safety or livelihood and that no other, less dire solution exists.

When we first began our study, destruction permits were routinely
awarded based on little evidence and, even more worryingly, recipients often profited from them. It is against the law to export a leopard skin obtained from a destruction permit, but local hunters will pay up to R20 000 for the opportunity to bag a cat. Farmers would therefore apply for a permit and sell the right to shoot the cat to a fellow South African. A permit would also be issued if a leopard was preying on wild ungulates. Even when killing their natural prey, leopards are treated as competitors by game ranchers - they both harvest the same resource. CITES tags are allocated for the legal hunting of leopards for sport. Of the 150 leopard skins South Africa is authorised to export every year, between five and 10 are allocated to KwaZulu-Natal.

This hardly seems excessive for such an adaptable and widespread species, especially compared to the 50 for Limpopo Province or the 20 for North West. However, when we began our work, the hunting effort was unevenly distributed in Kwa-Zulu-Natal: almost 80 percent of the CITES tags awarded between 2000 and 2005 went to the properties surrounding Phinda and the adjacent Mkhuze Game Reserve.

Moreover, leopards were hunted on three game farms adjacent to Phinda for two successive years and another for four years running. Hunting the big cats on the same farm in consecutive years creates pockets of habitat that are permanently empty of resident leopards.

These vacancies attract others of the species, particularly dispersing sub-adults, because of the lack of competition for food and space. A network of vacuums arose around Phinda and Mkhuze as more and more cats were drawn from surrounding areas, and were in turn exposed to hunting. The legal killing of leopards was compounded by illegal persecution, which is almost impossible to police. Leopards were opportunistically shot, gin-trapped, snared and, worst of all, poisoned.

Three years into the research, our results painted a bleak picture. Thirteen of the 26 leopards radiocollared in Phinda had died from a combination of natural and human related causes. In addition, we knew of 10 uncollared leopards that had been killed on properties adjoining the reserve. The average mortality rate of the population was higher than 40 percent, more than double that for leopards in similar habitat in the Kruger National Park, where all deaths were from natural causes.

Males were the worst affected. Nearly 55 percent of males that we monitored died each year. Not only preferred by trophy hunters because of their size, male leopards use large home ranges, covering greater daily distances than females. This increases their chances of moving off the reserve into areas where they are vulnerable to hunters.

Although trophy hunting is not always automatically damaging to populations, removing too many males can induce a cascade of harmful outcomes in carnivores. In particular, it can lead to elevated levels of infanticide, in which a new male entering the population kills cubs sired by the previous male.

This is what happened with the very first litter I observed in Phinda: the father was shot outside the reserve and replaced by a new male that killed his predecessor’s cubs.

Infanticide occurs naturally in leopard populations, but an artificially inflated turnover of males creates a situation in which females fail to raise youngsters because of constant incursions by immigrant males. Compounding this, females in Phinda gave birth at a later age and had longer intervals between litters than was known from stable populations.

Even conception rates appeared to be affected. We knew from longterm research in the Serengeti that lionesses display a period of reduced fertility immediately after a new coalition of males has taken over the pride; females postpone conception until the threat of further takeovers has diminished. Female leopards in Phinda seemed to adopt a similar strategy, and less than a fifth of the mating bouts we observed were successful.

In the projects first three years, only three cubs survived in the Phinda population while at least 23 leopards died. Spurred by these figures, in 2005 we began working with EKZNW to turn things around. On our recommendation, the process governing the use of destruction permits was overhauled. Only the landowner or an EKZNW official can destroy an offending leopard and the permits can no longer be sold for profit-making hunts. They are also no longer awarded for predation on wild herbivores, which is now treated as an inherent risk of the game-farming industry.

Finally, EKZNW decreed that relocation would be abandoned as a management tool to address problems with leopards. In the past, leopards suspected of killing livestock were often captured and moved to a reserve or game ranch committed to ecotourism. This may resolve the conflict on the affected farm, but often creates trouble elsewhere, as the cats seldom remain on the new property and readily cross to a neighbouring farm and resume killing livestock.

We also needed to encourage more sustainable sport hunting of leopards. Once EKZNW had scrutinized our data, it completely revised the system that allocated CITES tags. The most significant change was diluting the intense concentration of hunting around Phinda. We created five Leopard Hunting Zones (LHZs), which are allocated across the species entire range in the province. The new system limits a single CITES tag to each LHZ, allowing only one leopard to be hunted there. A tag assigned to an LHZ cannot be used elsewhere. The upshot is that no more than five leopards are hunted each year in KwaZulu-Natal, and hunting pressure is evenly distributed.

Moreover, each LHZ adjoins a suitably large protected area that acts as a source population to replace hunted individuals. The protected area effectively serves as a biological savings account that protects the core population from the effects of hunting while also providing dispersers to neighbouring areas where hunting is permitted.

This was the first time that an African statutory authority had taken the results of scientific research and redesigned its protocols for hunting and the control of problem leopards. Nevertheless, it was only the first half of the process. Our credibility was on the line unless the radical changes we had fostered proved to be good for leopards.

By the end of 2007, we had the first signs that the conservation interventions we introduced were working. In the first two years following the changes, we recorded only eight leopard deaths (seven collared and one uncollared) compared to the 23 deaths prior to 2005. Correspondingly, the annual mortality rate of the population plunged from 40 to 13 percent close to that for protected leopard populations elsewhere in South Africa.

Leopards were not only living longer, they were also reproducing more effectively. Females gave birth at a younger age, spent a greater proportion of their time with dependent cubs, and produced more litters.

Most importantly, cub survival increased dramatically. In fact, all 14 of the cubs that we knew were born in Phinda after 2005 survived to independence. We think this was because the threat of infanticide dropped as the turnover in territorial males declined. From an average tenure of only 32 months before 2005, males held on to territories for longer than 45 months long enough for females to raise litters to independence without the disruption caused by new males continually moving in.

Perhaps the most conclusive proof of the positive changes came from the camera-trap surveys we conducted every second year in Phinda. The most efficient way to estimate leopard numbers is with remotely triggered cameras that take photographs of the cats as they go about their daily lives. Since leopards have unique coat patterns, individuals can be identified from photos and this, combined with powerful capture-recapture statistics, generates highly accurate estimates of abundance.

Hence, the only explanation was that our intervention programme was driving the recovery of the Phinda leopard population.

Our final proof was in the number of leopards killed by people, both legally and illegally a drop from 15 to four. EKZNWs new strategy for managing problem leopards had reduced the number of cats removed, and the overhauled trophy hunting protocols successfully dispersed the hunting pressure.

We believe the drop in illegal kills from eight to two reflects greater tolerance among land owners for leopards (as opposed to illegal killing becoming even more covert than previously).

Our strategy for problem leopards hinged on helping farmers by providing training and support in alternative means of protecting their stock from predators, and by helping to identify where there was a genuine problem individual; losses declined in all cases where our recommendations were adopted.

In addition, the more democratic distribution of CITES tags across the region gave a larger proportion of land owners the opportunity to host a hunt, and hence the chance to benefit financially from having leopards on their land.

When we interviewed farmers on properties surrounding Phinda towards the end of 2007, most told us they preferred the new management system to the old. If the changes become permanent, the future of leopards in Phinda and Mkhuze is now much brighter. More than that, our study is one of the few examples demonstrating that conservation of big cats does work. We set out to achieve what many conservationists strive for to address a threat, reduce the decline of a population or save a species. But we also scrutinise our results.

Our project has probably ensured the future of leopards in KwaZulu-Natal. Just as importantly, by showing that conservation can succeed, I hope we have inspired fellow conservationists to prove that their efforts are working. If we can do that, I believe that the future of leopards and many other similarly imperiled species will be far more secure.

For further information about the Mun-Ya-Wana Leopard Project and other initiatives of Panthera, go to www.panthera.org.

Technical papers related to this article are available at http://panthera.org/scientific_publications.html. The author would like to thank &Beyond and EKZNW, whose assistance in developing the new leopard management strategy was essential, and the many professional hunters, game ranch managers, farmers and land owners who agreed to adopt it in the field.

http://www.panthera.org/documents/Aretheyprotectedorarentthey_SundayIndependent_Balme_Feb2010.pdf

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org

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