Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Citizen Scientists saving leopards

Leopard takes a selfie
Citizen scientists are making a real difference for our leopard research program. What started off as an idea from our head researcher (phd candidate Tara Pirie) to encourage our guests to buy camera traps for leopard research on our home reserve. Is now growing to enable us to recruit anyone with an interest in wildlife conservation to be part of our online team.
So how does it work? Well it couldn’t be simpler. We will provide our citizen scientists with access to a monthly digest of camera trap pictures. Each picture will have some part of a leopard photographed on it. At this point I should say that even though we have honed our camera trapping techniques over the last ten years, it is (as many researchers will tell you) not an exact art. Often a camera trap will only photograph a part of the body, face, tail, inside leg or whatever as the animal passes by.  The good news is that each leopard’s spot (or rosette) pattern is individual to that leopard. Therefore we can create ID kits for each individual leopard we encounter from the pictures. These kits are made up from camera trap photographs taken over time from a variety of angles, views and sides of the leopards. By relating the ID kits to the new pictures they get each month, our citizen scientists can work out which leopard it is. Then using the known location of each camera, we can determine where that leopard was and when. In that way we can build up a comprehensive picture of leopard movement and behaviour.
Thaba Tholo Leopard on camera trap
Of-course all of this is fine for the resident animals that we know. But leopard behaviour is often a fluid, meaning we see new leopards on camera traps from time to time. Here again citizen scientists can help us to identify these new leopards and determine if they are just passing through (and if so why), or if they settle in, to assist in building up new ID kits for those animals.
There is also a lot more that we can analyse from this citizen science. One thing for certain is that an individual leopard’s behaviour is affected by a many variables. Things such as prey species, the presence of other species, weather, season, even the phases of the moon are all key elements that are integrated to develop a better understanding of leopard behaviour by our research team.
By recruiting citizen scientists from our global family we are significantly increasing the amount of data we can analyise. But moreover it is exciting the interest of people who can actively participate in African conservation from the comfort of their homes.
We are expanding our operations into other reserves, cementing the link between tourism and conservation. This is more than just an admirable desire to support wildlife conservation on behalf of lodges and reserves. It enables lodge guests to maintain a connection long after they have returned to their home countries.
Camera trap pic, leopard not getting feet wet
It’s vital work that is needed to help accurately estimate the numbers of Leopards in South Africa. Let’s not forget (how could we?) that over 2,600 leopard hunting licenses will be allocated by CITIES to sports hunters in Africa this year! Whatever your views on big game hunting, it's plain to see that if we don't know how many leopards there are, then it’s very difficult to set a figure as to how many could be hunted. And while I know that the thought of killing a leopard for sport may be abhorrent to many people. It is only by using scientifically generated data that we can reasonably estimate the leopard population and enable the decision makers to make qualified decisions.
Written by Will Fox

1 comment:

  1. I would love to id leopards! Can i still join in?