The Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage and Research Centre are not only running a very busy wildlife rehabilitation centre, but are also engaged in a long-term predator study in the Matopos National Park region. The research aims to determine the population size and territories of leopard and hyena – knowledge that is crucial for creating an effective conservation plan.
In order to obtain data on the predator populations, Chipangali manager, Kevin Wilson, and his team periodically trap and collar individual animals that will then become part of the ongoing study. This is always an exciting moment in the research process, as it provides a rare occasion for a very up-close encounter. Earlier this month African Conservation Experience HR manager Pam and her friend Gill set out to volunteer at Chipangali during their holiday. With impeccable sense of timing, their arrival coincided with a call from a nearby farm, alerting Chipangali that a leopard had been caught in the cage trap that had been set a couple of days before.
As the weather was extremely hot, Kevin wasted no time in getting the team mobilised, wanting to make sure that the leopard would not suffer from dehydration or heat exhaustion. Within the hour, Kevin, a team of Chipangali staff and several volunteers, including Pam and Gill, were on their way.
Despite all efforts to free the leopard speedily, the team found her to be spitting mad – or, as recorded in the official data sheet for the capture-and-collar procedure: “super angry”!
Kevin set about the tricky process of preparing the tranquilliser dart, explaining the variables to be taken into consideration. Being a good shot is only one half of the challenge: Calculating the correct dosage is the real challenge. The correct amount to use depends on the size and weight of the animal, as well as the duration for which it should be sedated. And an angry leopard will of course not allow anyone to weigh it! Kevin therefore had to rely on his vast experience and an estimate of the leopard’s size, which was made more difficult by the cage being partly obscured by vegetation (deliberately so, to provide shelter from the intense sun).
With that accomplished, Kevin kept the volunteers well back at a safe distance as he darted the leopard. The tranquilliser took about twenty minutes to take full effect, before it was safe to move the animal from the cage onto an examination table, and to let the volunteers approach. Nicky from Chipangali set up the record sheets for the research study, and since a team member from the African Conservation Experience was present on the occasion it was decided to name the leopard “Ace”!
The first priority was to check Ace’s vital signs and well-being. Due to the heat, expert use was made of a cool drink bottle filled with ice to keep Ace’s body temperature under control. (Other cool drink brands are available to cool overheating leopards!). Luckily expert help was at hand for the more technical health examination: One of the farm residents where the trap was set was a fully qualified vet. On carrying out the examination, she confirmed the leopard was female and was surprised to find her pregnant. We’ll be having Ace cubs!
Following this exciting discovery, Ace was subjected to a more thorough health check and the African Conservation Experience volunteers were able to assist. They took the temperature, measured the teeth and recorded the leopard’s size and weight. With Ace officially entering the leopard database, Kevin then fitted a telemetry collar, making sure it fit snug enough not to be worked loose while allowing some room for growth. The battery life on a telemetry collar is approximately three years, during which time the leopard can be expected to fill out a bit.
Once Kevin was satisfied, the volunteers retreated to the safety of the vehicle and Kevin administered the reversal drug after placing Ace back in the cage. On coming around she seemed very drowsy, but as soon as the trap door was opened with a remote string system, she shot out – as mad as the moment she was caught! She disappeared into the bush immediately, but it did not take long for the tracking to be in full operation. Just the next day, the Chipangali volunteers were able to track Ace’s whereabouts through the telemetry signals and locate the cave in which we think Ace may have chosen to give birth to her cubs in the near future. We can’t wait to follow Ace’s ventures!
If you would like to keep track of Ace, sign up to our “Bushwire” email newsletter for an update in the next edition. And of course you can join the Chipangali project year round as a volunteer! Most volunteers who stay for three weeks or longer will have an opportunity to participate in the tracking and research project.