South Africa: Leopard Conservation Project Nudges Century Mark Of Successful Capture And Release Initiatives

by Apr 16, 2012Big Cats, Wildlife News

Rehabilitation centre for leopards is needed; leopard sperm being frozen in attempt to strengthen gene pool; leopards have changed habits in attempt to adapt to shrinking habitat.

When Fred Berrange captures and releases his next leopard, the Leopard Conservation Project will have saved the lives of exactly 100 leopards since it was formed in 2000 to assist this endangered member of Africa’s “Big Five” from going the way of the Dodo.

The project has come a long way since starting off in the Vaalwater area of Limpopo Province 12 years ago and became a Section 21 company in 2007, enabling it to raise funds more easily and market its meaningful initiatives to more sponsors.

Today Fred, with assistance from Chris Pearce – an accountant who handles much of the administration freeing Fred up to do operational work – is well known around South Africa as the human face of the battle being fought to rescue the leopard from extinction. This is a fate that surely awaits it if nothing is done to protect these marvelous animals in an environment where their habitat becomes more threatened on a daily basis. Many supportive vets and farmers also lend valuable assistance to the Leopard Conservation Project.

With support from companies such as Total South Africa – which last year sponsored Fred’s countrywide travel to the tune of R120,000 of fuel (increased to R150,000 this year) – he averages around 9,000 kilometres a month, crisscrossing the country to rescue, rehabilitate and release leopards.

Total South Africa, which is the official supplier of fuel to SANParks around the country, has a long and proud history of environmental and national park involvement since it was established in South Africa in the mid-1950s.

“As a responsible company we are passionate about environmental issues and about preserving the country’s wildlife,” said Reina Cullinan, Total South Africa’s Marketing Manager.

“We believe that the Leopard Conservation Project is doing very important work in improving the prospects for leopards which are under constant threat from a variety of man related pressures.”

While the project’s main focus has been on protecting leopards from poaching, poisoning, trapping and over-hunting, in recent years there has also been an emphasis on the collection of data regarding population, territory, genetics and diversity. GSM and now satellite collars – costing up to R30 000 each – are often fitted to leopards to enable the project team to find out more about their habits and whereabouts.

Interestingly, one of the unusual facts discovered through the use of these collars is that female leopards are more nomadic than males and that leopard cubs are being weaned earlier than in the past. Adapting to their shrinking habitat, young leopards can now be on their own from 18 months. They used to stay with their mothers up until they were two or even three years old in earlier years.

Importantly, the Leopard Conservation Project is accredited as a research organization by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, enabling it to collect and process data that broadens the knowledge base in relation to these elusive predators.

According to Chris Pearce, the Leopard Conservation Project is very keen to provide an alternative solution when farmers are issued with Damage Permits which enable them to trap and even destroy leopards on their own property.

“We contact the farmer and ask him not to trap or destroy the leopard. We want the chance to be able to catch the leopard in one of our special cages which ensures that the leopard does not injure itself trying to escape,” he explained.

“Unfortunately leopards that are caught in the wrong type of cages do great damage to themselves trying to get out – they break off their teeth, they rip off their claws and even wear off the skin on their foreheads.”

Although capturing and releasing its 100th leopard will be a major milestone for the project, it cannot be complacent or reduce its activities or the future of the leopard will be extremely bleak.

With the hunting season now in full swing, there is a big challenge to combat illegal trapping of leopards, canned hunting and the supply of leopards to the professional hunting market. Snares also remain a big problem, as does the killing of leopards for their skins for cultural and traditional reasons in provinces such as Kwazulu-Natal.

Looking to the future, the Leopard Conservation project is keen on establishing its own rehabilitation centre for leopards – probably in the Hoedspruit area of Limpopo Province – as this will enable it to do much more for leopards that need special care and attention before they can be released back into the wild.

Another exciting development with which the project is involved is assisting in an exercise aimed at freezing leopard sperm in attempt to strengthen the gene pool for the future. Being done in association with a veterinarian from Onderstepoort, this is the only project of its kind in the world.

While it is proving difficult to successfully freeze sperm for use at some time in the future, efforts are ongoing to make this an important extra tool in the battle to improve the outlook for leopards throughout South Africa and further afield.


Issued on behalf of: Total South Africa (Pty) Ltd

Image: Courtesy of Total South Africa, All Rights Reserved