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mara meru leopard project

Leopards are declining across majority of their range due to habitat and prey loss, and exploitation thus considered as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN and are listed in CITES Appendix 2cd. 

Numerous studies on leopard behaviour and ecology have been conducted in Southern Africa (Bailey, 2005; Swanepoel, 2009), Kalahari Desert (Bothma & Le Richie, 1984);  in the Serengeti National Park   (Cavallo, 1991); in Kenya (Hamilton 1981), including Sangare Ranch Conservancy (Svengren 2008), ranch in the Lolldaiga Hills in Laikipia (Mizutani & Jewell, 1998) and in Nairobi National Park and Silole Sanctuary (Yamane 2006). To date, there has been no research carried out on the Masaai Mara leopard population. With top carnivores facing increasing pressures due to loss of habitat, illegal trade in skins and body parts, and human-predator conflict, more research which encourages and promotes viable wildlife conservation practice is needed (Pitman, 2012), if the future of one of the world’s most enigmatic apex predators is to be secure. 

Interviewing local communities around the Maasai Mara National Reserve, conducted by our research team in 2012-2015 indicated that 89% of local pastoralists confuse leopard for a cheetah, thereby mistakenly persecuting both species for livestock depredation. 

Following a show of interest by the KWS in understanding the status and threats facing leopards in Kenya, we would like to establish a program on leopard study and compensation within the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project (MMCP) in partnership with the Foundation Leopard. The key reason for this program is to assist in the formulation of wildlife management policies in the Mara, using scientifically gathered and recorded data. It is essential that management practices be established to address the issues that surround the conflict between people and predators. 

The Goal: Improving pastoralism as a local livelihood system through the study of the spotted felines (Cheetah and Leopard)


Objective 1. To determine the status of the leopard population in the area

The database for all individuals in the ecosystem will be formed on the basis of individual identification, using a catalogue of photographic images (Raw Data) taken by the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project (MMCP) team during field work, and also provided to the MMCP by researchers, photographers, rangers, guides, visitors and volunteers, for the purpose of building the database. To date, over 6,728 images taken since 2012 to date have been collected and organised into 264 folders – each representing a separate sighting. The completed database will hold profiles of all identified leopards occupying home ranges within the MMNR and adjusting areas will be made. The profiles will contain information relating to each animal: ID No/Name, Age/approximation, Sex, Dates of Sightings, Distinguishing Features, including any other relevant information.

Objective 2. To promote an understanding of leopard ecology, threats and population dynamics in order to make recommendations to the conservation management authorities  

Once individual study animals have been identified, each animal will be given a study number. This number will be used to reference that animal thereafter, thus enabling population dynamic study. Direct observations and camera trapping surveys will be used for the study and  data will be submitted to local conservation authorities. Population dynamics will be studied as follows: Camera Trap and thereafter spoor recognition monitoring will continue to establish home ranges and behaviors with regular updates made. Camera traps are the most reliable means of gathering leopard population data and have the additional advantage of allowing for the identification of individuals. This additional information allows monitoring to utilise a spatially explicit capture-recapture framework (Efford 2004; Borchers & Efford 2008; Efford et al. 2009), which is generally considered to be the most reliable of the current methods available for estimating population density of individually recognizable species (Sollmann et al. 2011; Foster & Harmsen 2012; Tobler & Powell 2013). Scat analysis will provide additional information on the leopard diet in unprotected areas.

Objective 2. To create jobs for the locals and to support local eco-tourism in the area 

Assistants to the Program will be chosen from the dedicated local representatives, who will be trained for data collection, assessment of the human-wildlife conflict and conducting presentations to resident tourists if required in order to promote methods to view leopards with the least disturbance. To facilitate the data collection, the Program team will be working under the advisement of MMCP and in collaboration with the local guides from the tourist facilities. Citizen science will be involved by encouraging report sightings on virtual platforms (for example, iSpot and MammalMAP etc.), especially outside protected areas.

Objective 3. To enhance local knowledge and learning through short and long term attachment and internship opportunities for local students 

Different aspects of the study will be carried out by students under guidance of the head of the MMCP and professors of the study facilities from local universities and KWS Training Institute. Students will be taken for the attachment and internship (Bachelor and Masters projects, field practice etc.) all year round. This will promote a better understanding on both the ecological and behavioural differences between the Cheetah and Leopard, thus empowering the students as well as the local assistants in matters conservation.

Objective 4. To foster positive attitudes and tolerance among the pastoral community and reduce retaliatory attacks to these species through the compensation program in addition to other human wildlife conflict mitigation strategies

The Spotted Cat (Leopard and Cheetah) Compensation Program will be established with trained staff preferably men and women from the Maasai community and covering the entire Maasai Mara ecosystem. It will promote a cohesive relationship between local pastoralists and these two easily confused cats, translating to an expected reduction in retaliatory attacks onto Leopards and Cheetahs due to livestock depredation.

Species Status Overview

Due to their wide geographic range, secretive nature and habitat tolerance, Leopards are difficult to categorize as a single species. According to genetic analysis, nine subspecies are recognized, out of which eight are found in Asia and one Panthera pardus pardus (Linnaeus, 1758) in Africa with all continental African Leopards attributable to the nominate form (Miththapala et al. 1996, Uphyrkina et al. 2001). However, the taxonomy of the species is currently under review by the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group, recent molecular analyses could reduce the Asian subspecies to five (Stein et al. 2016). Although African Leopards can be regarded as a single genetic grouping, geographically they are subject to different pressures that require area-specific categorizations and conservation status assessments.   

Leopards are widely distributed across Africa and Asia, but populations have become reduced and isolated, and they are now extirpated from large portions of their historic range. The distribution of Leopards in East Africa has been reduced, in particular in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and central Tanzania. Over the past three generations (22.3 years) regional Leopard populations in the Middle East, East and South-east Asia, West, Central and East Africa have seen substantial range declines due to habitat fragmentation and forest clearing, prey reductions from bush meat trade, illegal harvest for skins and human-wildlife conflict and, retaliation for livestock depredation. Leopards have completely disappeared from regions of North Africa where they were recorded in the previous assessment (Stein et al. 2016). 

The primary threats to Leopards are anthropogenic. Habitat fragmentation, reduced prey base and conflict with livestock and game farming have reduced Leopard populations throughout most of their range (Nowell and Jackson 1996; Ray et al. 2005, Hunter et al. 2013). The conversion of forest habitats and savanna systems to agriculture, livestock farming and urban sprawl have significantly reduced Leopard range. Though exceptions exist (Athreya et al. 2013), this conversion typically leads to the depletion of natural prey species through poaching thereby reducing the natural prey base in these areas.

Evidence suggests that Leopard populations have been dramatically reduced due to continued persecution with increased human populations (Thorn et al. 2013, Selvan et al. 2014), habitat fragmentation (UN 2014), increased illegal wildlife trade (Datta et al. 2008), excessive harvesting for ceremonial use of skins (G. Balme pers. comm. 2015 in: Stein et al. 2016), prey base declines (Hatton et al. 2001, du Toit 2004, Fusari and Carpaneto 2006, Datta et al. 2008, Lindsey et al. 2014, Selvan et al. 2014) and poorly managed trophy hunting (Balme et al. 2009). Throughout North, East and West Africa, Middle East, East and South-east Asia, Leopards have suffered marked reductions and regional extirpations due to poaching for illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, and prey loss. 

Leopards have limited levels of ecological resilience to human-caused habitat fragmentation in Africa, and as a result are more restricted to conservation areas. Although male leopards can successfully traverse fragmented and sub-optimal habitat (Fattebert et al. 2013), in general Leopards in Africa require large contiguous habitats with low human impacts to reproduce successfully (Balme et al. 2010). However, human populations have increased by 2.57 percent annually (from 0.699 billion to 1.139 billion) from 1994 to 2014 (UN 2014) driving a 57% increase in the conversion of potential Leopard habitat to agricultural areas (from just over 200 million ha to almost 340 million ha) from 1975 to 2000, and a 21% decrease in natural vegetation in the region (Brink & Eva 2009) likely have negatively impacted the leopard populations. These increases in human population and habitat fragmentation were not accounted for in the previous assessment. As a subspecies P. p. pardus potentially qualifies as Vulnerable due to suspected population declines.

There are few reliable data on changes in the Leopard (P. p. pardus) status (distribution or abundance) throughout Africa over the last three generations, although there is compelling evidence that subpopulations have likely declined considerably. It is strongly recommend by the IUCN detailed status assessments for different areas of Africa to address regional needs and requirements (e.g., Henschel et al. 2011).


Leopard diet and human-wildlife conflict

Leopard diet is related to prey availability and presence of larger competitors. Generally, Leopards prefer medium-sized ungulate prey (10-40 kgs) where available (Hayward et al. 2006). They have a highly varied diet, however, feeding on insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals up to large ungulates. Though the Leopard as a species has the reputation of being a generalist, often individuals will become adept specialists for a particular prey item. These individuals will feed almost exclusively on that prey, occasionally supplementing their diet with other food items when necessary. Where competitors are present Leopards will cache their kills under thick vegetation or hoist their prey into the limbs of a tree. Hoisting behaviour is more often recorded where intraguild competitors’ density is higher. Male Leopards tend to hoist more often than females, particularly in the dry season when available ground cover is scarce (Stein et al. in press). In the absence of larger competitors, leopards feed on larger prey (Ramakrishnan et al. 1999, Hayward et al. 2006).

Where livestock and game farms have been created, Leopards may feed on these commercially valuable prey causing conflicts with farmers. These farmers may be intolerant to Leopard conflict and kill the Leopards for real or perceived threats to their lives and livelihoods (Stein et al. 2010, Athreya et al. 2011). In many parts of its range, the importance of domestic animals in their diet is also evident with dogs, goats and cattle forming a large proportion of their diet (Mukherjee et al. 2001) sometimes even dominating the prey items in the diet (Athreya et al. 2014, Shehzad et al. 2014). Dogs have been reported as important prey for Leopards (Edgaonkar and Chellam 2002, Athreya et al. 2014). Scat analysis will provide important information on the leopards’ diet and frequency of livestock depredation. 

In many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, farmers are allowed to kill predators that are considered a threat to life and property with permits distributed retroactively. It is likely that a high percentage of Leopards are killed without reporting and therefore the exact numbers of Leopards killed through actual or perceived conflict is unknown. Generally, efforts to calculate mortality through human-wildlife conflict have been considered unreliable. Since the majority of Leopard range is outside of protected areas, conflict mitigation strategies such as livestock husbandry, compensation/ insurance programs and public awareness have all been used to assist farmers and increasing tolerance for living with leopards (Balme et al. 2009, Stein et al. 2010). Where conflict Leopards have been identified, translocation has been tried often with negative results (Weilenmann et al. 2010, Athreya et al. 2011), however, effective translocation criteria have been developed based on suitable release site characteristics (Weise et al. 2015). 

In Southern Africa, livestock conflicts are mitigated through use of guarding dogs and improved livestock husbandry (Marker et al. 2005). While various pilot projects have been established in different parts of South Africa, little research has been done about their overall effectiveness within the assessment region, especially for Leopards. Preliminary findings suggest that livestock guarding dogs can decrease depredation by 69% (McManuset al. 2015).

In Southern Africa the following recommendations were made for pastoralists: responsible management of livestock and the encouragement of farmers to practise a more
holistic approach to problem animal control need to be promoted. This includes the use of
natural deterrents such as guard dogs (Anatolian shepherd dogs), electrified and predator proof fencing around ‘kraals’ or paddocks, the traditional use of shepherds in the field and the
conservation of natural prey species for the leopard (Martins & Martins 2006). In Eastern Africa, pastoralists exhibit two types of pastoral lifestyle. There are those who still prefer to stick to the olden way of traveling with their livestock in search of pasture and water with temporary accommodation structures that only last until pasture in that area is exhausted after which they relocate to another area. On the other hand, there are those with permanent areas of residence and only take their livestock out for grazing during certain times of the day and then drive their livestock back to their respective bomas. Unlike in Southern Africa , the Maasai community dwell around areas of conservation concern known as protected areas. This therefore poses a major herding challenge since animals such as herding dogs are never allowed into these protected areas thus inhibiting the use of guarding dogs as a solution to protecting livestock from predation. Moreover, findings from the community interviews we conducted indicated that bomas, which suffered night attacks from Leopards, lost their dogs to this magnificent cat.

Compensation Program for spotted felines (Cheetah and Leopard) in the Mara

Retaliatory attacks onto predators is as a result of the negative attitudes among pastoralists. This is as a result of the perceived zero value of these wildlife in the eyes of pastoralists thus only viewed as intruders, competitors and killers of their wealth. Naturally, the value of wildlife can not be equated to that of livestock but because livestock directly contributes to the livelihood of a pastoralist, wildlife therefore has the least value attached to them. In talking human wildlife conflict, so much has been invested in education programs, predator proof boma construction, predator deterrent lights installation but still, the negativity towards predators is high. This is answered from the responses to our community interviews who suggested that Compensation of any meaningful sort, helps to dilute the painful ordeal of livestock loss and has a better chance of fostering tolerance. On this remark, we are convinced that a well structured and transparently managed compensation program can be  implemented alongside the above human wildlife conflict mitigation measures and in the long run will minimize if not totally combat predator losses to retaliation.

The Leopard Study and Compensation program will be operating under the auspice of the Foundation Leopard and in association with several local Universities and training facilities (i.e. KWS Training Institute etc.) and in affiliation with the Kenya Wildlife Service and local governmental authorities in the study area (i.e. Narok and Transmara Counties).  

Before any compensation is carried out, comprehensive investigation will be conducted to qualify for compensation. This will be achieved through a thorough establishment of a human wildlife conflict response team, training of the compensation team on Leopard and Cheetah kill identification from teeth and claw marks on the carcass; establishing a compensation form that will guide in proper conflict scene investigation. This involves locating proof of existence of the conflicting predator usually in the form of photographs and presence of foot prints at the scene, assessment of any predisposing factors to livestock predation usually presented as porous boma, low lying boma, no boma or negligence from owners to lock up livestock in boma, evaluation of livestock losses under the guideline of current local market prices. After filling the compensation form, the team will then be able to qualify or disqualify an incident for compensation. 

Expected outcomes

Data on the density and behaviour of Leopards of the Mara does not currently exist in any credible format, leaving a gap in understanding. Substantiated data is required to assist in the formulation of wildlife management policies. Our research methods enable the study of leopard density, behaviour and population dynamic, taking into account the likely variables.
This data will form part of an overall study of the leopard population in Africa.

The program expects to:

Foster positive attitudes among the Masai pastoralists towards Cheetah and Leopard and, by extension towards other carnivores. This will be measured by: an expected significant reduction in deaths of Cheetahs and Leopards in community areas as a result of retaliation to livestock depredation; frequent reporting on any sighting of the these two cats around households, by members of the community; reports on existence of positive informal talks about these two cats by members of the community which can be obtained through interactive sessions with kids from the community. (Children are an important asset in understanding community attitudes because they mirror what is passed onto them by elders).

Improve local knowledge and understanding on Cheetahs and Leopards through incorporation of Leopard information in the MMCP education program, provision of attachment and internship opportunities for local graduates in the field of Conservation and related disciplines. This will be measured by the number of attachees and interns involved in the program, correct interpretation of Cheetah and Leopard related incidences of attacks and sightings through spelling out of distinguishing features and behaviour by locals.

Directly contribute to the local economy through employment opportunities and compensation for any loss since compensation will be viewed as a reimbursement.

Achieve improved livestock husbandry among local pastoralists. This will be measured by an increase in the number of predator tight bomas, increased acceptance of predator deterrent initiatives in households such as installation of predator deterrent lights among others.

Promote an understanding on the conservation status of the Leopard in Maasai mara ecosystem, through monitoring of their population dynamics, demographics and threats thus promoting their conservation alongside the Cheetah.