Archive | February, 2014

East African Leopard: Victim or Victor?

28 Feb

As I investigate the steady decline of the “ Big Five” game animals throughout East, South, and Central Africa: Lion, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Buffalo, and Leopard only the leopard has developed the ability to adapt to the urban sprawl and the human population growth occurring throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Even the Cape Buffalo herds that once roamed freely over the African savannahs are now confined to wildlife preserves because it was found that they contaminate domestic cattle with diseases like Anthrax, Foot & Mouth Disease, Rabies, and the dreaded Rinderpest and that is only a partial list of maladies. And although the total subspecies of African Leopard, Panthera pardus, pardus has decreased due to civil war, poaching, land conversion, and irate farmers it has not suffered the critical decline in numbers that the lion, elephant, or rhinoceros have.

In 2008 The International Union for Conservation in Nature (IUCN) classified the African Leopard as “Near Threatened” on their Red List of Threatened Species rather than “Endangered” like that of the lion, elephant, and rhinoceros but warned that it could soon be changed to “Vulnerable”. The African leopard was declared officially extinct on Zanzibar, an island belonging to the country of Tanzania in 1996 where there have been no confirmed sightings of any leopards since. And while the African leopard is not considered endangered in East Africa, there are sections of West Africa where the leopard population is in critical decline as well as in Asia, where subspecies such as the Snow Leopard approach extinction.

What makes the African leopard so able to survive when other species have not? Well first of all, it’s a loner with no need for an extended family and does not seek out the company of other leopards except to mate. Although females stay with their cubs from birth to around eighteen months of age and sometimes the fathers remain nearby to protect the infant cubs from strange males for the most part, leopards are not social animals. The female leopard gives birth to two to three cubs at a time then stays with them until the cubs are large and strong enough to accompany her on the hunt. Infant cubs are born with their eyes closed preventing them from moving beyond the den. The mother leopard typically keeps them hidden for the first eight weeks of life changing her den’s location often so that the cubs scent is not detected by lions or hyenas on the prowl. Under ideal conditions the mother suckles her cubs for at least three months introducing them to freshly-killed meat around six/seven weeks of age. She will remain with her cubs up to 1 ½ years but then she leaves them and resumes her previous nomadic lifestyle. As attentive as she had been as their mother the female leopard will never look for her children again

Secondly, the leopard is an intelligent animal forced to depend on its wits. The leopard or “chui” in Kiswahili is called the “ghost” for many reasons. For the most part this medium- sized cat occupies the same territory as lions. It cannot expect to confront these larger predators and win so has learned to outsmart them by demonstrating a higher level of stealth and guile. It spends most of its time hidden from view especially during the day stretched out across tree limbs high up in the air. A Maasai hunter once told me that leopards have the souls of ancient warriors inside them and still remember how it feels to be human. Maybe he’s onto something there and that’s why they’ve acclimated so well to the presence of humans beings on their land? It is whispered around the fire at night that by the time you see a leopard it already has you in its grasp and that is so true. It is as silent and capable a hunter as ever lived.

I have been on safari many times and have yet to see a leopard in the wild and am not alone. It is the only “savannah mammal” I have not seen. During my most current safari to Murchison Falls, Uganda we drove for a full seven hours looking for leopards and spotted none but sometime later that evening on his way to dinner my safari guide saw a large adult male rummaging through the garbage heap behind the lodge. I began to suspect that this mysterious creature might have adjusted far better to the presence of tourists than they had to him. As I asked around I heard stories about leopards roaming the area near the building at night so much so that guests of the lodge were warned away from entering the woods surrounding the lodge after sunset. Contrary to popular belief, leopards hunt during the day as well as at night but seem to do their best hunting and cover the most territory during the hours between dusk and dawn.

The African leopard might have a reclusive nature but it also has a curious one. Rather than fearing man and avoiding civilization it seems to be quite willing to exploit  human settlements to meet its own needs. According to wildlife biologists it has easily made adjustments in its previous routines as man’s pushed further and further into its natural habitat changing its hunting patterns and acclimating to new food sources. According to the latest research on the movements of East and Central African leopards there has been a significant increase in the number of sightings near villages and cities lately. Official sightings of leopards have been reported in the urban areas of India, Pakistan, Tanzania, Nigeria, China, and Saudi Arabia as well. In a study conducted by the World Wildlife Federation in Pakistan, (2005 -2007), 97 out of a total of 125 leopard sightings – were in and around human settlements. Traditionally leopards do not actively hunt human beings for food but a starving leopard will devour any source of fresh meat and leopards have had no reservations attacking humans when threatened in the past. During 2004, 14 people in Mumbai, India were killed as a result of what were officially identified as “leopard” attacks.

Leopards are not picky eaters and are more than willing to select their food from among a wide range of prey. They are not even reluctant to scavenge off the carcasses of dead animals when provided with the opportunity to do so. According to wildlife biologists 92 different prey species have been found in the stomach contents of deceased African leopards including insects, birds, rodents, large and small antelopes, and baby herd mammals. Infrequently, adult males have been known to hunt adult wildebeest or zebra and although they are much smaller than the average adult lion they have great strength for their size and can haul victims weighing three times their size up into the trees. This willingness to select food from such a diverse range of living things helps ensure they will survive no matter the extent of the changes in the local fauna.

African leopards can call almost anywhere on the African continent home easily acclimating to most types of terrain from high- altitude mountainous regions, forests (woody and tropical) grasslands, savannahs, to hot semi-arid deserts. In 2005 a study conducted by Ray et al. estimated that the African leopard has disappeared from at least 36.7% of its previous historical regions with the worse losses occurring across the Sahel belt (from Mauritania to the Sudan), Nigeria, and South Africa but its populations have not dramatically declined in other regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Darwin’s discussions on “Natural Selection” he explained that “in the punctuated equilibrium model of environmental and biological change, the factor determining survival is often not superiority over another in competition but the ability to survive dramatic changes in environmental conditions” If so, my money is on the African leopard.

And then as if fated to support my point of view on the adaptability of the African leopard, an Indian leopard showed up on the streets of Meerut, India two days ago where it thoroughly terrorized the residents there. By all accounts this was no frightened animal although it seemed a lost one entering a hospital, apartment building, and then of all places, a movie theatre in its attempt to escape. I am including a link to the original article. Well worth reading and the photos are spectacular especially the one showing the leopard breaking through a wall into the street.

Why the animal appeared in a crowded district during the day is unsettling and gives some indication as to how comfortable the creature had become around human beings. And its willingness to enter buildings filled with the scent of human beings is even more unnerving. According to statements from bystanders in the crowd it appeared confused but never panicked. Who knows how many nights it prowled the streets of Meerut feeding on garbage, small dogs, and large rats as it developed a “feel” for the area? And according to the article this is only the latest in a series of visits by leopards to other urban areas in India.

In a world where so many species are being pushed to the brink of extinction by the relentless demands of the human race; it seems the leopard has decided to fight back.

There is also an alarming video on YouTube uploaded by NDTY- type in ” Leopard filmed snatching dog from Mumbai home”

Kat Nickerson                                                                                                                                                                                           Kingston, Rhode Island