To catch a leop­ard

What do you do when your con­ser­va­tion do­na­tions are no longer enough?

Living Now - - Contents - by Glenn Wood­ford

Wow... Just Wow! If I had a free hand, I’d pinch my­self’, I heard my­self say­ing as I picked up an­other vial of bright red blood. ‘Cap goes on, place in rack... pass an­other un­capped vial to the vet’. Here I was in the baked Sa­van­nah’s of Namibia, as­sist­ing a re­searcher take blood, fur and saliva sam­ples from a young male wild leop­ard. He wasn’t awake… of course. We’d just caught him in a box trap and he’d been im­mo­bilised by the vet a short time ago. Now we were rac­ing against the clock to get him ready for re­lease be­fore he starts to wake up...

Back­track a few months and I was sit­ting in my of­fice, con­tem­plat­ing what I was go­ing to do with my long ser­vice leave. Hav­ing reached 10 years of ser­vice at an IT con­sult­ing firm, I was faced with this ex­cit­ing de­ci­sion. A con­cern that weighed firmly on my mind was that I was be­com­ing in­creas­ing dis­sat­is­fied with my monthly do­na­tions to con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions. It just wasn’t enough any more. I had to do more… I had to get in­volved, be on the ground and do some­thing. I had to ex­pe­ri­ence it… and a vol­un­teer ex­pe­ri­ence – a hol­i­day with a dif­fer­ence – seemed like the best way to do that.

As some­one who loves big cats, choos­ing a con­ser­va­tion vol­un­teer pro­gramme that fo­cused on the preser­va­tion of these iconic species was a no-brainer. Even though I wanted to see and ex­pe­ri­ence what was hap­pen­ing all over the world in this area, I had to start some­where; so Africa be­came my tar­get con­ti­nent. Per­haps South Amer­ica next time.

I did some in­ves­ti­ga­tion and iden­ti­fied a bonafide sci­en­tific re­search project where I could vol­un­teer; one that in­volved set­ting cam­era traps and box traps to catch leop­ards.

I then built an itin­er­ary that would see me ex­plor­ing Namibia, Botswana, Zim­babwe and South Africa on a three month jour­ney, work­ing with lions, leop­ards and chee­tahs… amongst

other African wildlife. I’d also have an op­por­tu­nity to be a tourist and see some of Africa’s most spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes.

High­lights of my jour­ney were: • cap­tur­ing and col­lar­ing leop­ards on a re­search project through Bio­sphere Ex­pe­di­tions (in part­ner­ship with Ber­lin’s In­sti­tute of Zo­ol­ogy and Wildlife) • lion mon­i­tor­ing (LEO Africa) on a game

re­serve near Kruger Na­tional Park • look­ing af­ter big and lit­tle cats in a sanc­tu­ary called N/a’an ku se near Wind­hoek • kayak­ing with play­ful seals in Walvis

Bay • track­ing leop­ards and spot­ted hyena near the Nauk­luft Moun­tain range in Namibia • watch­ing lions and hye­nas hunt at

Etosha and Kruger na­tional parks • ex­plor­ing Botswana’s pris­tine Oka­vango Delta in flat bot­tomed hol­lowed out Mokoro ca­noes • climb­ing the dunes of Sous­su­vlei to

watch the sun­rise • and pho­tograph­ing 1,000 year old dead trees in the salt pan of Dead­vlei… …What an ad­ven­ture! So back to our young male leop­ard: Af­ter tak­ing sam­ples and mea­sure­ments, we were now ready move him. We car­ried him across a clear­ing, about 100 me­tres or so, to the re­lease cage and started mov­ing him into it. He was fight­ing to wake up and pretty much walked him­self into the cage, al­beit with a bit of help from us. He then promptly went back to sleep when we set­tled him back down.

Next, we re­peated the process with the larger fe­male leop­ard that we had also caught; his mother. We took pho­tos and sam­ples and col­lared her with a GPS col­lar. She was then car­ried to the same spot and placed on the ground so she could wake up near her boy. The vet gave her the im­mo­bil­i­sa­tion an­ti­dote and we high-tailed it out of there! They both woke up within a short pe­riod of time and we left them to find their way back into the moun­tains, where they would sleep off their han­govers for the next 24 hours or so.

In the fol­low­ing days, we were able to down­load the data from the mother’s col­lar and see that they had con­tin­ued their way along the top of the moun­tain range, af­ter hav­ing slept for a full day and night. This brought the to­tal num­ber of leop­ards on this re­search project to around 20.

I did some in­ves­ti­ga­tion and iden­ti­fied a bona-fide sci­en­tific re­search project where I could vol­un­teer; one that in­volved set­ting cam­era traps and box traps to catch leop­ards.

One of the main fo­cuses of this re­search project was wildlife con­flict mit­i­ga­tion, par­tic­u­larly with the farm­ers of Namibia, who are the leop­ards’ ma­jor threat. In the con­ser­vancy where this project is based, the GPS data gath­ered shows the re­searchers where the leop­ards are mov­ing on the farms in the area. This data is then pro­vided to co­op­er­a­tive farm­ers, who can then move their vul­ner­a­ble livestock to ar­eas not fre­quented by these big cats, thus re­duc­ing the like­li­hood of a leop­ard tak­ing one of their an­i­mals and their feel­ing that they need to shoot said leop­ard.

The re­search project has been prov­ing very suc­cess­ful with word-of-mouth lead­ing to more and more farm­ers hear­ing about it. They then go out and buy their own cage traps and GPS col­lars, then trap the res­i­dent leop­ards on their farms and call the re­searchers to come and col­lar them. In re­turn, they too are pro­vided with the rel­e­vant GPS data to help keep their livestock safe. Most farm­ers re­spect the leop­ards and don’t want to shoot them, with many re­al­is­ing that the cats are ter­ri­to­rial – mean­ing that if you re­move one, an­other will come and take over its home range be­fore too long – so best to work in har­mony with na­ture.

While my whole ad­ven­ture was mind blow­ing and the mem­o­ries will last me a life­time, pos­si­bly the main thing I walked away with was more pre­cious than I could have ever imag­ined: hope.

It felt very sat­is­fy­ing to have the op­por­tu­nity to see first-hand what is be­ing done to help pre­serve leop­ard pop­u­la­tions in Namibia. I met beau­ti­ful souls con­duct­ing amaz­ing projects around the world in the area of con­ser­va­tion; specif­i­cally, many pas­sion­ate peo­ple work­ing their prover­bial butts off to help ‘big cats’, along with other equally pre­cious an­i­mals.

If you also feel that do­nat­ing isn’t enough any more, or you’d just like to travel and do some con­ser­va­tion vol­un­teer­ing, do it now! Your pas­sion and ef­forts are needed, and there has never been a bet­ter time. There are even op­por­tu­ni­ties here in Aus­tralia, with the likes of Con­ser­va­tion Vol­un­teers Aus­tralia. Not only will your life will be changed; your ex­pe­ri­ences will im­pact those around you.

If, like me, you love ‘big cats’ and want to make a dif­fer­ence to them but can­not travel right now, there is some­thing that you can do to help. Pan­thera, the world’s lead­ing big cat con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion, have a stack of cam­era trap pho­tos that need wildlife iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. This is a sim­ple yet in­trigu­ing process. To take part, fol­low this link –­cyif

If, like me, you love ‘big cats’ and want to make a dif­fer­ence to them but can­not travel right now, there is some­thing that you can do to help.

Glenn Wood­ford is a Mel­bourne based IT pro­fes­sional who loves na­ture, col­lab­o­rat­ing on big cat con­ser­va­tion projects and re­solv­ing fe­line be­hav­iour prob­lems. His pas­sions in­clude con­ser­va­tion, wildlife, cat psy­chol­ogy, pho­tog­ra­phy, FPV drone rac­ing, spir­i­tu­al­ity and var­i­ous forms of heal­ing in­clud­ing re­flex­ol­ogy and Peru­vian plant medicines.

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