Leopard Ecology & Conservation

Leopard Ecology & Conservation (LEC), initiated by Monika Schiess-Meier in 2000, is a project that seeks to promote the long-term survival of leopard
and lion populations in Botswana by integrating conservation and community education.


For the protection of big cats Leopard Ecology & Conservation explores practically urgent questions scientifically and communicates potential solutions and their implementation effectively to the local communities.


Leopard

Leopard Ecology & Conservation has been conducting research on leopards (Panthera pardus) in the central Kalahari since the year 2000.

Compared to most other ecosystems leopard density in our study area is extremely low. This is as a result of the low productivity of the Kalahari ecosystem, which supports only low densities of herbivore species. Low leopard density brings with it concerns in terms of conservation status. Although the population currently appears to be stable, unpredictable environmental changes could easily lead to the deterioration of conditions which are vital for the persistence of the local leopard population. For this reason we investigate the basic ecological needs of the local leopards, as well any potential threats.

A key resource is of course food, and consequently we study the prey utilization of leopards, along with the density at which these prey species occur, and the vegetation which supports these herbivores in return.

Vegetation, and the landscape, are influential factors during hunting, and we are interested in their role during this process. We also look at how leopards use the space available to them, and how they share this with competing species such as lions. All the abovementioned components interact with each other, and we hope that by understanding these dynamic relationships a bigger picture should emerge that will provide important insights for the conservation of leopards and all other species living in the Kalahari.

Leopards are faced by various threats in our study area, and as elsewhere, unfortunately these are mostly as a result of human influences. Leopards often come into conflict with farmers outside protected areas when they kill their livestock.

A commonly used method to resolve this, is to catch and translocate such “problem” leopards into protected areas. We are studying the effectiveness of this method, by placing collars on such translocated animals and monitoring their behaviour and fate following their release. At the same time we are educating local farmers how to better protect their livestock in order to reduce such conflict (see Education Programme).

Diseases pose an additional threat to the local predator populations. As a result of their wide ranging behaviour in the Kalahari, leopards may be exposed to various pathogens, often carried by domestic animals into the game reserves. For this reason, we investigate the disease and health status of the leopards that we study and its potential consequences at the population level.

Lion

In addition to the work Leopard Ecology & Conservation does on leopards we also study lions. Lions are a charismatic, umbrella species through which many other species can be conserved. As top predators they are keystone species and ideal indicators of ecosystem health. Therefore, monitoring lion populations is of crucial importance for conservation.

We use state of the art GPS collars on adult lions to allow us to easily find and observe lion prides in our study area. We currently have 10 collared females and 2 collared males in our study area. Observations allow us to assess male coalition attendance, birth rate, survival rate, and the overall health of the whole pride. Because of their social nature, the collared animals often take us to other lions that we would not otherwise see. This helps us to get more accurate population estimates than with opportunistic sightings alone.

The collars record (and send via satellite) regular positions of the collared animals which, in addition to helping us see the lions, reveals how they use the space available to them. The data LEC has collected so far has revealed that the lions in our study area are using some of the largest territory sizes recorded for lions. It has also shown us that the animals in our study spend the majority of their time alone or with one, occasionally two other adults. They rarely meet up into bigger groups.

In addition to the general ecological research described above, we have another, important, reason to monitor the lion population of Khutse and the Southern Central Kalahari Game Reserves. Lion numbers have been in steady decline for many decades throughout their range, but in the 11 years that LEC has been monitoring lions in our study area we have seen two dramatic declines. We estimate the current population size to be approximately half what is was in 2005, from 60 to 30 animals. This decline has been in due to the episodic occurrence of a disease and also to human persecution. In the course of our research we monitor both situations and hope to contribute to a meaningful conservation policy.

Act Now for Tomorrow

With our educational project

“Act Now for Tomorrow”

LEC endeavours to develop a tool which allows sustainable and broadly supported land use. Central to this is the training and instruction of the people so that they can eventually handle the resources effectively and well informed.

Our work radius is the Kweneng District, directly adjacent to Khutse Game Reserve. Here LEC focuses on the seven cattle posts Ditampane/Mosime, Kungwane, Mahuhumo, Makakamara, Mangadiele, Moilwane and Mokujwane and the village Kaudwane (see map page 7).

The education project began in 2008. Today five employees are working with the farmers and herders as well as the inhabitants of Kaudwane on various projects. Apart from the materialistic successes LEC is proud of the trust relationship, which was built with our local partners.