Phantoms of the Night&the Mountain Prince

To me, the leopard is the ultimate cat. It’s the master of stealth and camouflage and excites me more than lions.
Issue date: 27 February 2009

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To me, the leopard is the ultimate cat. It’s the master of stealth and camouflage and excites me more than lions.

The moonlit night was filled with sounds. I couldn’t sleep because cold, dense air is a good transmitter of sound and I was acutely aware of every noise. It was well past midnight and we were in bed on the gauze-enclosed veranda of our house close to the Arabie Dam in the former Lebowa. There was the occasional bark of a bushbuck, the continuous piping calls of dikkops and the alarm calls of plovers on the lawn in front of the house. With rhythmic hoots, two eagle owls proclaimed their territory from the roof and a barn owl screeched each time it flew past, while somewhere in the distance, jackals were serenading in the moonlight. Then I heard it – the rasping cough-roar of a leopard. We had two adult leopards in captivity as part of the training setup for nature conservation students, and it was the male’s deep voice which was being carried remarkably far in the night. Once he started, he hardly stopped and I immediately knew what it meant.

That afternoon I’d set up a leopard cage-trap at the 50-pair ostrich breeding project to capture and relocate a wild male leopard, which had been regularly visiting us to catch yet another ostrich. If this wasn’t bad enough, the commotion made the ostriches stampede and they frequently broke their legs and necks in the wire fences. The roaring of our captive leopard was undoubtedly in response to the growling of the newly captured wild male, which he’d heard about 2km away. I could hardly believe it and was filled with anticipation for the morning.

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I woke the resident veterinarian early, and armed with a tranquilliser gun, we approached the cage-trap before dawn. Sure enough, I’d caught the culprit, but the cage only contained the leftover bait. By lifting the drop-door, which didn’t have a locking-latch, the leopard had managed to escape. I was concerned, however, to notice a fair amount of tooth enamel and blood smears on the bars of the cage, evidently from mouth injuries sustained during his violent struggle to escape. Fortunately the leopard recovered and survived, but he never came near the ostriches again.

Later I found impala and duiker remains in the trees of the game park and once I found him with a near-mature red hartebeest bull, weighing three times as much as he did, which he killed after a titanic battle flattening grass and bushes for about 200m.

To me, the leopard is the ultimate cat. It’s the master of stealth and camouflage and excites me more than lions. Maybe it’s because of the close relationship I had with the captive pair. Although spotted, they had a rare gene producing, on average, one jet-black kitten out of every four – this is the rare melanistic (black) form of the typical leopard and a phenomenon which also occurs in jaguars and very rarely, in pumas. As grown-ups, these black panthers are magnificent creatures – true phantoms of the night.

The leopard’s beauty can, however, be misleading. Despite weighing less than a human, they aren’t one of the Big Five for nothing. When hunted and especially when wounded, they can be one of the most dangerous adversaries of a hunter. They’re ruthless, cunning and extremely adaptable hunters themselves, hunting anything from beetles to kudu and even crocodiles.

In certain areas, they play an important ecological role in controlling baboon and bushpig populations, which destroy crops. They’re largely nocturnal and live solitary lives, except when mating. Male leopards are the largest spotted cats in Africa, with a wider distribution than any other wild cat in the world, ranging from the southern tip of Africa to Siberia.

But despite their adaptability and ability to persist where other large predators have disappeared, their numbers have dwindled significantly in many parts. This is mainly due to poaching for the fashion trade during the middle of the previous century, when there was a high demand for their beautiful skins.

In 1963, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Nairobi, reported 50 000 leopards were poached each year in East Africa to satisfy this demand. Fortunately, fashions have changed, but like elsewhere in Africa, the poaching of leopards’ natural prey on South African farmland has become an even more serious problem. The decreased efficiency of government in addressing this is reflected in the burden of ever-increasing legislation, which the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism aims at legitimate sports hunters, rather than at poachers.

According to a recent radio news report, leopards and other efficient predators like jackal and caracal are increasingly forced to prey on smallstock, culminating in an estimated annual loss of R1 billion to the smallstock farming industry.
Although leopards are only responsible for a minor portion of this figure, their conflict with stock farmers is escalating and unfortunately perpetuating the age-old war between man and beast.

Just this morning, I received a letter from a farmer near Clanwilliam who has lost 143 Dorper ewes and three calves during the past two years. Observations have revealed that a radio-collared leopard on the farm has caused at least some of these losses, which no farmer can endure. But this farmer is quite conservation-conscious and very concerned about the extensive general poaching in the area depleting the natural prey base of predators and about which nature conservation does sweet blow-all.
If official conservation bodies continue to shy away from their responsibility to control poaching and develop non-lethal methods to control smallstock predation, farmers will be forced to take matters into their own hands.

They have the right to earn a living and protect their property, but like in the case of the extinct quagga, blaubok, Knysna elephant and magnificent Cape lion, the traditional control methods of shooting, gin traps and poison will also ensure the disappearance of the Cape leopard – a true mountain prince. This last, most southern remnant of a special small-form of the leopard, which weighs just over half of its northern cousins, is in imminent danger of disappearing forever and if it does, nature conservation will be to blame, not the farmers. – Abré J Steyn
Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected].     |fw