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Evidence of a High Density Population of Harvested Leopards in a Montane Environment

  • Julia N. Chase Grey ,

    j.n.chase-grey@durham.ac.uk

    Affiliations Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, Primate and Predator Project, Lajuma Research Centre, Louis Trichardt (Makhado) , South Africa

  • Vivien T. Kent,

    Affiliations Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, Durham Wildlife Trust, Houghton-le-Spring, United Kingdom

  • Russell A. Hill

    Affiliations Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, Primate and Predator Project, Lajuma Research Centre, Louis Trichardt (Makhado) , South Africa

Evidence of a High Density Population of Harvested Leopards in a Montane Environment

  • Julia N. Chase Grey, 
  • Vivien T. Kent, 
  • Russell A. Hill
PLOS
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Abstract

Populations of large carnivores can persist in mountainous environments following extensive land use change and the conversion of suitable habitat for agriculture and human habitation in lower lying areas of their range. The significance of these populations is poorly understood, however, and little attention has focussed on why certain mountainous areas can hold high densities of large carnivores and what the conservation implications of such populations might be. Here we use the leopard (Panthera pardus) population in the western Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa, as a model system and show that montane habitats can support high numbers of leopards. Spatially explicit capture-recapture (SECR) analysis recorded the highest density of leopards reported outside of state-protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa. This density represents a temporally high local abundance of leopards and we explore the explanations for this alongside some of the potential conservation implications.

Introduction

Carnivore density and distribution is limited by a range of ecological and anthropogenic factors. One of the main constraints of carnivore density is prey availability and abundance, with carnivore densities being positively correlated with the density of their prey [1,2]. Large carnivores also require sufficient suitable habitat to provide cover for hunting and females require denning sites for rearing their young [3,4]. Anthropogenic factors limiting carnivore density include habitat loss [5], decline of prey densities due to hunting by humans [6], human persecution [7] and unsustainable harvest levels [8].

Widespread conversion of habitat into land for cultivation and human habitation has resulted in extensive habitat loss for many large carnivores. As a consequence, populations of felids, such as leopards (Panthera pardus) and pumas (Puma concolor), occur in mountainous areas that are less accessible to humans, where they persist after extirpation from lower lying altitudes of their ranges [9-15]. The conservation significance of these populations is poorly understood.

The leopard is one of the most widely distributed of the Felidae and inhabits a broad range of different habitats [9,16]. Their large geographic range is partially explained by their highly adaptable feeding behaviour which allows them to live wherever there is a sufficient prey base and hunting cover [17,18]. Nevertheless, global population numbers have declined over the last 100 years [19] and leopards have disappeared from 36.7% of their historical range in Africa [5]. The species was recently reclassified by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as “Near Threatened” and some of the leopard’s most dramatic range loss has occurred in South Africa [9,20]. Decline of leopard habitat and populations can be due to habitat loss and fragmentation [5], poorly managed harvest quotas [8,21] and persecution [16,20]. Furthermore, there is a lack of widespread scientific input in quota setting for legal trophy hunting in many countries and few data exist on leopard numbers or metapopulation dynamics in many areas in which they are hunted [22]. Here we address the need for more data on leopard populations subject to both legal and illegal hunting and persecution through an examination of the population status of the leopard in the western Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa. In identifying the existence of a temporally high population of leopards in the mountains, we discuss the factors contributing to this high density and the implications for conservation management and metapopulation dynamics.

Materials and Methods

Ethics Statement

All fieldwork was approved by the Life Sciences Ethical Review Process Committee at Durham University, UK, and the Department of Anthropology Ethics Committee, with the ethics guidelines of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth adhered to when interviewing landowners. All work was conducted with approved permits from the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment & Tourism, South Africa.

Study area

The study was conducted in the western part of the afro-montane forests of the Soutpansberg Mountains, Limpopo Province, South Africa (Figure 1). The mountains cover approximately 600km2 and range in height from 250m above sea level to the highest peak Letjume (1748m) at the western extremity [23]. Temperatures vary in the wet season (December-February) from 16-40°C and in the dry season (May-August) between 12 and 22°C [24]. The western Soutpansberg is part of the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, recognised as a hotspot of South African biodiversity and endemism [25].

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Figure 1. Camera trap study area within the western Soutpansberg Mountains.

Lower map shows the location of the mountain range in Limpopo Province, South Africa.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0082832.g001

Land use in the western Soutpansberg consists of a patchwork of private cattle and game farms, ecotourism properties, conservancies and communal farm land. Uncontrolled hunting during the 19th century and the destruction of habitat from cattle farming led to the extinction of mammals such as the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the b