AdventureTravelNews

Spotting Leopards on Okonjima

by Nigel Berriman -Okonjima guide

If you thought a guide’s only work is telling entertaining stories while pointing out Leopard and other interesting sightings on Okonjima, you would be very mistaken. They also gather critical data on the animals in the reserve and feed this back to AfriCat HQ who in turn use the information for strategic planning and research of the animals in their care. The Leopards and Spotted Hyaena in the 4000 hectare reserve have been monitored on a regular, almost daily basis since May 2008.

Guides have been taking notes on the animal’s positions, movements and prey species. At present there are six leopards fitted with radio collars in this area: TJ (Tyson junior), Mafana, Nkosi and Scarface (males) and MJ, (Maha Junior) and her cub Oshiwa (females). Oshiwa left her mother during September last year and is now hunting independently. MJ has since given birth to two cubs that are now about 8 months old.

During the 39 month period from May 2008 to the end of July 2011, 2099 leopard sightings were made and 301 kills recorded. Like Nkosi, TJ is more secretive than Mafana and MJ, and is very adept at hiding his kills. Mafana’s radio collar stopped working towards the end of last year and he led us on a merry dance before being recaptured and fitted with a new collar. Very little data on Scarface is available as he has only been recently caught and collared.

Analysing the collected data has provided the following statistics on hunting and prey preference:

* 1 leopard kill every 4 days & 1.7 sightings per day during a period of 1185 days.

* Over a long period of time – no leopard had a preferred prey species – at times it may be warthog (28%) for the stronger males – then kudu (21%) – proof again that leopards are ‘opportunists’ and will kill whichever prey is easily available.

* Altogether, 19 species of mammals, two species of birds and one species of reptile were noted. From Aardvark to Zebra and including Bat Eared Foxes, Black Backed Jackal and Caracal. Nkosi was once observed killing and eating a Leguaan (Monitor Lizard).

* Contrary to popular notion the Chacma Baboon is also not the preferred prey for leopard. Only one baboon kill was witnessed during the 1185 day period! In fact, Nkosi has been seen fleeing from a troop of angry Baboons in hot pursuit on two occasions…

Pictures from top

Leopards are notoriously silent, solitary hunters who will often drag their kill into a tree, perhaps to avoid having to share with other scavengers on the ground.

Guests have a more than 90% chance of seeing any one of the many leopards at Okonjima.

A leopard skillfully drags the carcass of a Chacma Baboon to a nearby tree.

Nkosi patiently waits and watches a herd of kudu.

Although slender and shy, Oshiwa is a photographer’s dream.

MJ with one of her two cubs born this year.

Footprints in the sand

WildTrack (www.wildtrack.org) is working with the AfriCat Foundation to help develop a new approach to cheetah monitoring in Namibia – using footprints.
The footprint identification technique (FIT), developed by WildTrack, uses complex statistical modelling of footprint geometrical variables which can then provide animal identification at the species, individuals, age-classes and sex levels.

Thanks to the ambassador cheetah at AfriCat, Team Okonjima/AfriCat and some willing PAWS volunteers, we have now started collecting footprints from AfriCat’s Carnivore Care Centre & the Okonjima Nature Reserve to help establish a database for this species. Because each species has different foot geometry, the FIT algorithm must be determined for each species before it can be used for monitoring unknown animals. That’s why we’re collecting prints from known individuals first, to figure out what it is in the geometry of the foot which makes each cheetah unique.

Recently a volunteer, Kristina Killian (Biosphere), began the process of collecting prints at AfriCat. Four different individual cheetah were persuaded to walk along a sandy trail, one at a time, and their prints were photographed using a simple digital camera and sent electronically to our research base in Portugal. Processing the images in FIT involves optimising and orientating the images, taking more than 120 measurements and then using a statistical model to output not only predicted identity, but also relationships between individuals. This is perhaps the most exciting part of the analysis, and although the database is far from complete, the model has already been able to identify sibling groups.

Take a look at the footprints of Jago, Morticia, Pugsley and Wednesday. They are all left hind feet. Can you see something unusual for a large cat footprint? Cheetah prints leave clawmarks because they have non-retractable claws. Can you also see the characteristically sharp lines at the back of the heel, produced by the sharp indentations in their tarsal pads? Could you tell they come from four different animals?

We’ll be updating regularly on how the analysis pans out as other cheetah and carnivore partners in Africa collect more prints.

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