The Rise of the Leopard in the Great Karoo

The Samara Private Game Reserve has always been famous for being a home to numerous different species of wildlife and an interesting observation may very well point to the fact that one of the most exotic creatures is making a comeback.

A Sordid History

In the past, there were many reports of “tigers” roaming throughout the reserve. What is not often mentioned is that this term was actually used to describe any number of predatory cats; the leopard in particular. Another unfortunate fact is that most goatherds and farmers considered these creatures a very real threat due to their ability to kill and maim other animals. It should therefore come as no great surprise that this species (amongst others) was hunted nearly to the point of ablation throughout many parts of Africa (1). Through the use of mechanical traps and other means, these beautiful creatures were culled on a massive scale. As they were also prized for their coats, such methods became quite normal for hundreds of years. Indeed, this article highlights that other actions such as shooting and even poisoning devastated the local leopard community. It should therefore come as no great surprise that most leopards learned to avoid man at all costs and instead find protection in the most remote areas of the continent. An example of such a region can be seen in the Samara Private Game Reserve.

Samara Private Game Reserve

Samara Private Game Reserve

An Ideal Spot?

Due to its location within the foothills of the Sneeuberg Mountains, leopards had been known to exist in this reserve for some time. There are countless historical references to explorers witnessing the occasional leopard alongside other big game species such as lions and cheetahs. An article published by the Graaff-Reinet Advertiser in the early part of the 20th century alludes to this fact; stating that “tigers” were frequently caught by farmers. Still, the encroachment upon this natural habitat by mankind took its toll. Towards the end of the 20th century, hardly any were ever seen. Some even doubted as to whether or not they existed at all. Indeed, the final leopard kill occurred in 1977. As the animal weighed twice as much as would have been normal, it was surmised that a lack of other predators caused a greater abundance of prey. This was another signal that few leopards existed within the Samara Private Game Reserve.

Hints of a Comeback

One of the most interesting observations since 2010 is that the leopard may very well be returning to this nature preserve. Over time, there have been numerous pieces of evidence to back up this assumption. Characteristic scratch marks on the bases of trees as well as the occasional sighting are both strong evidence. Tourists and locals have also heard the tell-tale “rasping” sounds of leopards during the early evening hours. Still, these accounts could not always be backed up with scientific proof. It was not until 2014 that a remote camera viewed a leopard for the first time in decades. This was then backed up by the discovery of fresh tracks. As the spoor was located quite close to lodges and routes commonly travelled by humans, there seems to be a compelling argument that these animals could be learning to become more acclimated to the presence of civilisation within the area. Should this be the case, it will be much easier to monitor the population as it continues to grow.

Samara Private Game Reserve

Samara Private Game Reserve

A Real Interest

One of the reasons that these occurrences have captured the attention of scientists arises from the fact that as opposed to some other predatory animals, there are still many mysteries in regards to the elusive leopard. How do they adapt to different landscapes? How will they modify their diet when natural prey is lacking? These are only two of the questions, which have yet to be sufficiently answered. It should be recognised that this species is considered to be an apex predator in the Great Karoo as well as within many parts of Africa. Therefore, they have an important role in providing balance to the ecosystems here.

The main problem with obtaining these observations is that leopards are notoriously cunning and wily. They are able to escape many confined exposures and due to their natural fear of humans, observing them up close will certainly be challenging. A final issue is the sheer size of the reserves themselves. As some will occupy no less than 2,000 square kilometres, it can be quite easy for the leopard to once again disappear into the immense wilderness. Still, such an increased presence may very well give scientists a window into the unique lifestyle of this truly magnificent creature.

References:

1. Ray, J. C., Hunter, L., Zigouris, J. (2005) Setting conservation and research priorities for larger African carnivores. Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, USA

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