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AWF Staff Member Reflects on Project

During the World Cup I had the pleasure to spend time with Christina van Winkle from our offices in Washington D.C. and her friend Mike. We met for the first time that morning in Nelspruit and then drove in tandem to Paul Kruger gate en route to Singita Kruger National Park.  I had a great time with them, and in the process, we managed to discuss the project’s objectives.  Besides discussing the project, we went to visit a few camera stations, replace SD cards, and to see if the batteries needed to be recharged.

Here is an account of Christina’s visit:

During my recent visit to South Africa, I was fortunate to spend the day shadowing AWF's leopard researcher, Mr. Nakedi Maputla, in Kruger National Park.  After four visits to Africa and countless hours tracking leopards, I had yet to see one in the wild and had myself convinced that this was it -- my ace in the hole!  During my first hour of driving through the park and learning about Nakedi's research project, I realized I should stop holding my breath.  Nakedi shared with me his research methodology and informed me that he himself rarely sees a leopard.  Leopards are nocturnal, solitary cats that prefer dense vegetation and primarily hunt at night - not ideal for a daytime safari drive.

​Nakedi's primary view into the life of these elusive cats is through a lens. By transecting a block of land with motion-detecting camera 'traps', he is able to determine the leopard population within that particular area.  Strapped to trees, bushes, or trail markers, these cameras are set to take photographs when triggered by motion.  Unfortunately, there is no way to program the camera to take photos only of leopards, so Nakedi spends much of his time collecting these cameras and sifting through hundreds of images -- in total, hundreds of thousands --  to determine if any leopards were captured within the photographs.  Much like our fingerprints, leopards have unique arrangements of spots -- no two are alike. He is able to identify individual leopards simply by examining the orientation, size, and shape of their spots.  In approximately two weeks, Nakedi captures images of all leopards living within a study area, and then moves on to the next portion of the park.  Starting in the northern sector of Kruger, Nakedi is working his way south and by the end of 2010, will have transected the entire 7,500 square mile park (over 200 miles long, 25 miles wide in certain areas) and determined the total leopard population within the park boundaries.

​It has been over 30 years since a complete leopard count has been conducted in Kruger and many changes have taken place over that time.  Park boundaries have shifted, community land has expanded and the land surrounding Kruger is utilized for more intense agriculture and livestock grazing. To understand the conservation needs of these special cats, the first step is to determine its population relative to its prey animals and competing predators.

The growing concern over bovine tuberculosis (bTB) and its impacts on cat populations has created a greater need for population counts.  Bovine TB is transmitted to lions as they hunt and eat infected buffalo. While there is not enough evidence to conclude with confidence that the lion population decreases (based on published scientific literature), less competition for food may have a direct impact on the leopard population.

Leopards are thought to be unaffected by bTB, as buffalo are typically too large for a leopard to hunt. Nakedi's findings, however, are refuting this belief as he has discovered several leopards displaying symptoms of the disease.  He is currently working with local veterinarians to determine if the leopards have in fact been infected with bTB.  Combined with other research projects in Kruger, the goal is to determine the drivers of leopard population dynamics among lions and spotted hyenas, discover the unique conservation needs of these majestic cats, and find a path to ensure they endure forever.

​It was a pleasure to spend time with one of South Africa's young emerging conservationists.  Only through building the capacity of local Africans to conserve their own natural resources can we ensure a bright future for Africa's wildlife and wild lands. Thank you to all of our supporters to ensure work like Nakedi's continues.

About the Author

Nakedi joined AWF in 2007, working in the Limpopo region, where he's from. Nakedi's initial work was focused on studying the great cats to shape conservation strategies to benefit communities he's known all his life. In 2014, Nakedi moved on from the Limpopo region, becoming AWF’s Congo landscape ecologist.

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AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.