Preserving our Untamed Pride

Preserving our Untamed Pride

Preserving our Untamed Pride

10 February 2013

By Myrna Robins, SUNDAY ARGUS

IT WAS a good news event, and the guests loved every minute of it. The auditorium at the Graham and Rhona Beck Skills Centre outside Robertson was packed as farmers, workers and residents of Robertson, Ashton, McGregor, Montagu and Bonnievale came to hear an update on the Robertson Corridor Leopard Project – and to view photographs of the elusive leopards that roam the mountains around the Breede River valley. It’s the work of the Landmark Foundation, a small NGO which runs the project as part of a larger site survey of the mountain leopard populations from Botrivier in the Western Cape, to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

Leopards are the last remaining free-ranging top predator in this area, facing major threats which include death by humans, habitat loss and genetic isolation. And since Robertson has been identified as a potential natural corridor between the northern and southern mountain ranges, researchers were keen to determine whether leopards were able to move between these fragmented habitats. If not, genetic isolation will, in time, jeopardise the sustainability of small populations, and ultimately lead to local, then regional extinction.

Reports of sightings by local farmers and reserve rangers have confirmed the presence of leopards in the Robertson area, so the Landmark team set up a series of cameras to obtain data on the populations in the Overberg and Riviersonderend mountains, and in the ranges between De Doorns and Montagu.

Heading the foundation is director Bool Smuts, a medical doctor whose full-time day job with the Health Department in no way prevents him from practising as a sustainable development expert, with environmental management, socio-economic development and risk management expertise. He holds an MPhil in environmental management, and exhibits quiet passion and steely dedication to conservation.

Researcher Carolyn Devens, a US student who has taken to leopards and the Western Cape with enthusiasm, is in charge of the camera project. Thanks to co-operation and support from Robertson farmers, she was able to place 43 cameras by the end of last year. She checks them at six- to eight-week intervals, and her most recent analysis revealed the presence of 12 new leopards in the region, bringing the total number recorded in Robertson to 30 cats. Robertson, she said, appeared to be “flourishing”, with nearly double the average number of leopards compared to other areas across this province and the Eastern Cape, where a total of 19 populations and around 350 cats have been identified.

Thanks to photographic proof from the Robertson Corridor camera stations, two important questions have been answered in the affirmative. The Landmark team confirmed connections between different populations, with leopards crossing the Breede River – a large male and female photographed at the Rooiberg mountain station were also captured on camera on the southern side of the river.

The big cats are also crossing the Riviersonderend mountain range – two leopards captured by cameras in the Greyton Project have been identified as the same leopards photographed in the mountains surrounding Agterkliphoogte, and as far west as the mountains above McGregor.
Mossie Basson, maintenance and conservation manager at Graham Beck Wines outside Robertson and an enthusiastic project supporter, has acquired a vast store of knowledge of the fauna and flora of the region. He heads a nature reserve of nearly 2 000ha, started 21 years ago by the late Graham Beck.
A large male leopard, which Devens has dubbed the GB Big Guy, has been photographed there, occasionally accompanied by a female.
Basson regards the leopard project as one that has “opened new windows, that can track the different systems in nature in a fun way”.
He pointed out that most land-care studies report a leopard presence of 1.3 leopards to 100km², while in the Robertson corridor area the figure is 3.3 leopards to 100km².

Smuts said the Robertson corridor project had provided a glimpse of what was possible in productive agricultural areas, and suggested this could be attributed to the fact that the productive land – in this case vineyards – was restricted, occupying smaller areas where water is available.
Devens, who is in the US on holiday, plans to use the data from the leopard programme, and the Robertson Corridor in particular, for her doctorate.

Meanwhile, the Landmark Foundation also encourages visitors to the Robertson winelands to look out for cellars that display the Leopard Friendly Farm sign.
They used the event as an opportunity to thank the audience for the “pride, respect and concern that so many of have shown for the biodiversity on the region's farms”, describing the commitment as “extraordinary”.