A Leopard may not be able to change its spots, but new research from a World Heritage site in Nepal indicates that leopards do change their activity patterns in response to tigers and humans — but in different ways.
The study is the first of its kind to look at how leopards respond to the presence of both tigers and humans simultaneously. Its findings suggest that leopards in and around Nepal’s Chitwan National Park avoid tigers by seeking out different locations to live and hunt.
Since tigers — the socially dominant feline — prefer areas less disturbed by people, leopards are displaced closer to humans. Though they may share some of the same spaces, leopards avoid people on foot and vehicles by shifting their activity to the night.
A scientific paper based on the study, led by Neil Carter, postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), was published this week in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation. In addition to Carter, the co-authors are Micah Jasny of Duke University, Bhim Gurung of the Nepal Tiger Trust in Chitwan, and Jianguo “Jack” Liu of Michigan State University.
“This study shows the complexity of coupled human and natural systems,” said Liu, director of the Michigan State University Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “It also demonstrates the challenge of conserving multiple endangered species simultaneously.”
Most areas where leopards and tigers co-exist are human-dominated. Accounting for the multi-layered interactions between leopards, tigers, and people is therefore key to understanding the ripple effects of human activities such as conservation actions, the researchers say.
The study has important implications in light of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, which is committed to doubling the worldwide tiger population by 2022. As tiger populations — and the territories they occupy — grow, leopards are increasingly likely to be pushed into areas where people live. The jostling of wildlife occupancy may open the door to more conflicts between people and leopards that could include leopard attacks on both people and livestock, as well as retaliatory killings of leopards.
The researchers’ findings underscore how successful conservation efforts need science that takes into account the complex feedbacks between humans and nature.
“We want to see increased tiger numbers — that’s a great outcome from a conservation perspective. But we also need to anticipate reverberations throughout other parts of the coupled human and natural systems in which tigers are moving into,” said Carter, “such as the ways leopards respond to their new cohabitants, and in turn how humans respond to their new cohabitants.”
While working on his doctoral degree at Michigan State, Carter spent two seasons setting motion-detecting camera traps for leopards, tigers, their prey, and the people who walk the roads and trails of Chitwan, both in and around the park. Chitwan, nestled in a valley along the lowlands of the Himalayas, is home to high numbers of leopards and tigers. People live on the park’s borders, but rely on the forests for ecosystem services such as wood and grasses. They venture in on dirt roads and narrow footpaths to be ‘snared’ on Carter’s digital memory cards. The roads also are used by military patrols to thwart would-be poachers.
Analyses of the thousands of camera trap images begin to tell the story of who is using which spaces and when they’re using them. Sometimes, though, ‘seeing’ isn’t enough.
“People who use camera traps and other kinds of related monitoring tools realize there’s a possibility that the animal is there, but you just didn’t detect it,” said Carter. “For example, your area of interest may be too large to set up cameras everywhere. Or, it’s harder to detect animals in certain forest types if there are a lot of leafy trees blocking the camera’s field of view — even if the animal is right there.”
Because traditional field-based research can be logistically restrictive, time-intensive, and expensive, the researchers used cutting-edge computational models to fill in data gaps and statistically estimate the location and timing of leopard-tiger-human activity.
“The computational component of this research is essential since it allows us to make strong inferences about leopard behavior in Chitwan based on a small sample,” said Jasny, who spent an internship at CSIS working on the leopard-tiger-human data with Carter.
Carter says that while there are many models that look quantitatively at the relationships amongst ecological components of an ecosystem, those models rarely consider humans. Integrating human activity adds a layer of real-world complexity that is more representative of the ecosystem as a whole — providing insights that can help researchers better understand how people and wildlife mutually influence one another.
The above story is based on materials provided by Michigan State University.
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
Image Credit: Image courtesy of Michigan State University
Wild Cats World did a small “Tour de France” on kind invitation by Parc des Félins and Zoo de Maubeuge, to talk about (wild) cats conservation. The park is of course the dream of every wild catlover, as for space and species, while Maubeuge showed us how it is possible to provide an enriched life to the animals with little means and space.
Of course we kindly accepted to see the Sri Lanka leopardcubs with their (very protective!) mom, a special birth for the species and for a small park like this.
As for the sandcats (felis marguerita) we discussed the possibility to start with this gorgeous species at our WCW SA project. It would be great to have this species next to the Black footed Cats, the two smallest African wild catspecies. More about this later at a later stage. For now enjoy this photo and many more that will follow!
Sri Lanka leopard cubs, endangered subspecies of the leopard (panther).
We were kindly invited to get a first glimpse of the 6 weeks old cubs at Zoo Maubeuge, the first successful litter of Sri Lanka leopard cubs of 2014 in the world-wide breeding program. The leopardmom was very protective and was hiding the cubs in the straw so it was very difficult to get a glimpse and eventually a good picture. Aren’t they cute?
The Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is a leopard subspecies native to Sri Lanka. Classified as Endangered by IUCN, the population is believed to be declining due to numerous threats including poaching for trade and human-leopard conflicts. No subpopulation is larger than 250 individuals.
Although the situation where Dimas and Sawal are living in right now isn’t ideal, they are both fine. They are active, hunting and eating well. The caretaker at the sanctuary is giving them live prey once a week. On other days they get their food in different ways to give them enrichment: meat hanging on a rope, or hidden in a carton box that is hanging in their enclosure. Unfortunately we still haven’t found a suitable release site for them. It really is a difficult situation as there are not so many suitable areas left and the better areas are already occupied by other leopards. Besides, there’s so many human-leopard conflict.
At this moment we are still focusing on the Ciremai National Park. One male leopard has been spotted there, but more research needs to be done in the middle of this National park. Although we are very happy with the help and cooperation with the National Park, the research isn’t going as fast as we hoped for. We are depending on their officers and they are also the ones who place the camera-traps to see if there are more leopards around.
If it appears so there’s just one male around in this area, the question still would be if it is wise to release our two males there as well, as they no doubt will start searching for females and if they are not around in this National park they will probably start looking outside. If they leave the area we can start all over again as there will be conflicts with humans again. There’s just too little space for wildlife and leopards left on Java and not much better elsewhere in the world.
An other option is Cikapu area. The Forest Department talked to us about this area as it seems there are no leopards around here but they are interested to get some there. But before this can happen lots of work needs to be done, to have this area better managed as a lot of people are entering this area. Also the usual habitat assessment needs to be done first, so before we actually know for sure it is suitable, many months will pass… and still many more funds are needed.
Just for you to know, we continue to work hard on this and hopefully next time there will be better news about the release of our two leopard friends Sawal and Dimas. Keep them in your prayers and if you have anything to spend, please fund and support the leopards with the help they so desperately need. See the info on the Wild Cats World website.
On ground level they are still working hard to make the release of the wild leopards Sawal and Dimas a fact. Sadly things in Indonesia are not going fast, as you can expect of a country with an atti…tude “if not today, there’s always tomorrow!”
But currently there’s a meeting with Ciremai National Park to talk things through about the release and to put camera traps in the center of this Park to continue with the assessment in that area. It is a difficult project as there’s little info and experience in the release of Javan leopards and no knowledge of suitable areas to do a release as such in which the leopards will be safe.
The leopards are fine under the circumstances but the situation is far from ideal of course and we all cannot wait to give back their freedom. Help is offered now from a person experienced in surveys, camera trapping etc. so let’s hope this will speed up the assessment in the Ciremai National Park.
Our fund raising #3 is still on for 5 more days on Indiegogo, for everyone who still wants to support this release project and everything to do with it, a very valuable and time consuming operation. In the meantime we keep you up-dated whenever there’s news!!