Insight to Secrets – Keith Jenkinson

Leopard

Insight to secrets by Keith Jenkinson

Humans have always been fascinated by all of the world’s cats and the relationship dates back as far as 7 500 BC, a shallow grave of a
human and a cat was found in Cyprus both ceremoniously buried facing west with
stone tools and sea shells indicating some kind of early symbiotic relationship. The relationship between humans and cats has always been an ambiguous one though, in the Middle Ages cats were often considered in league with evil and were slaughtered en masse. As the numbers of cats diminished in Europe  their food source, rodents, flourished and the back plague spread rapidly!
In ancient Egypt cats were kept to control the number of rodents in grain stores and cats were also associated with the goddess Isis and Bast.

In Japanese folklore a landlord noticed a cat indicating to him in a waving movement, he was intrigued and approached, as he got close to  the cat lighting struck where he had just been standing. Thus cats are considered to be good luck (Maneki Neko) in Japanese folklore, and are believed to invite wealth. Figurines of this cat are often found in Japanese shops and restaurants.

In Africa the large cats have always been in conflict with humans, early humans were most probably a prey species but as we evolved we quickly started to out-compete the large predators. Today many farmers still see leopard as vermin and stock thieves, as a result animals are often shot or
poisoned.

In many African cultures the Chieftains wear leopard skin as
a royal head dress, this historically has not been a problem as the number of
Chieftains in South Africa is small and legal “controlled” trade in leopard
skins was able to supply the demand. The Shembe church is a 4million strong
church in Kwa-Zulu Natal that requires all of its members to wear leopard skin.
This church is about 30 years old and is now cause for grave concern for
Leopard conservation in Africa as a huge demand for skins has been created.

An illegal trader was found various body parts of over 150 leopards in 2008 but was later acquitted of 252 charges due to legal technicalities!

Projects to produce realistic fake fur for this purpose are
on the go and will hopefully eradicate this problem.

For many years conservationist were of the opinion that the
leopard is one of the few large cats that is able to survive close to human
settlement due to its intelligence and tenacity this view is now being
scrutinized by many conservation authorities. An on-going study has shown a
sharp decline in leopard numbers in various areas of Southern Africa. The study has also highlighted the need for more research projects. This is where the Sabi Sand will be able to play an integral role in leopard conservation.

The population of leopards in the Sabi Sand is world renowned
for being unique in their tolerance to humans. The Sabi Sand is one of the only places on earth where leopards can be observed by humans without altering their day to day behaviour. Leopards are naturally secretive animals and in most areas will avoid humans at all costs. Being such a stealthy and intelligent cat makes the leopard a very difficult animal to study and many projects have to rely on camera traps, collared individuals or even tracks and signs of the animals to determine populations.

In essence every game drive at Inyati is a researchers dream, as every visitor is presented with ample opportunity to photograph leopard and have a glimpse of their daily behaviour.  Guides in the Sabi Sand have been collecting data by viewing these animals for many years and this data is now being shared with the Endangered Wildlife Trust to bolster their studies.

Apart from having an accurate population dynamic study the Sabi Sand presents some insights into these majestic cats that have never before been accurately recorded.  Guides and guest at Inyati often see leopard mating, this enables us to create accurate family trees and monitor the lineage and dynamic of male leopard over the past 30 years.

Female leopards trust us enough to often allow guides and guest the opportunity to view interactions with cubs, this will enable us to determine and accurate weaning and survival rate of cubs. This in turn allows us to establish a population growth curve that would impact on future conservation management
plans.

The past two years has offered us the opportunity to witness
the effects of a change in dominance of males in specific territory.  A well known male named Wallingford (Wally)
survived to the ripe old age of 18 (a record for a wild leopard in the area)
but lost his territory in July 2009. We know this because we witnessed him kill an impala in front of Inyati camp before an afternoon drive and he was last photographed then.
 A young male we named Tekwaan then took over the territory and mated with various females. The influx of males after Wally was
astounding. Within two months 6 male leopards were spotted in the area, Tekwaan had his work cut out but seemed to hold strong until late 2010 when he disappeared. No one has solid proof of what happen

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