People Looking at Leopard Tracks

In the Tracks of Leopard

Guest Blog by Boise State University graduate student, Tara Easter

Wildlife populations in Gorongosa National Park in the Sofala Province of Mozambique are currently recovering from almost complete eradication after a long civil war. Antelope, baboons, and warthogs have come back in the thousands; elephant numbers are slowly growing, and even a small population of lions has returned. But everyone wonders: where are the leopards? With plenty of prey, suitable habitat and limited competition from more dominant predators (lions), they should be flourishing. So far, though, there has been no indication that they are in the Park. The question now is how to create and support viable corridors that support leopard recovery, as well as lion, wild dog and hyena.

Neighboring concessions have reported all these species. And as for leopard specifically, an adjacent forestry as well as a hunting concession a few kilometers from the Park is one such area that has claimed presence of leopards. So the grand adventure begins!

With the gracious donation of 25 new Bushnell cameras from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and permission from the forestry concession manager we set out to investigate.

­Our colleagues organized a team of scouts to take us out to areas where large carnivores are frequently spotted. After over an hour’s drive on a bumpy road from the lodge through amazingly intact forests, we hefted our packs full of cameras and hiked down into a small gorge known to frequently be used by leopards. Almost immediately, the scouts spot a cat track. Too small for lion, it must be leopard.

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It was encouraging to detect their presence so early in our exploration. We ended up finding tracks all through the sandy gorge, some incredibly fresh, and it was clear that many different species were utilizing the river. It appeared the cats had been in the gorge almost staying just ahead of us as we walked. Needless to say, we blanketed the area with cameras, eager to find out what kinds of animal communities call this place home.

The next day, we visited a more open area where kudu, zebra, and other large antelopes are though considered rare inside Gorongosa. The scouts have also spotted small lions and believed that wild dog could be inhabiting the area as well. With only one permanent water source, a few cameras next to wildlife trails leading to the drainage should capture most of the area’s mammals. Though, we did put one up high in a tree in an attempt to capture whatever animals might be using an old dirt road. Thankfully, these rangers are much better climbers than I.

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It was great working with the forestry scouts, and we both walked away with new skills. The information we gather from these cameras will help us better understand how much potential the area has for serving as a wildlife corridor into the park. Of course, habitat quality and the presence of apex predators are not the only factors that will enable a healthy park ecosystem. Recovery will depend largely on people. Unfortunately, a few snares were found along the way, but I am optimistic that a strong partnership between the park and the forestry concessions will continue to facilitate the recovery of Greater Gorongosa’s wildlife.

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The steps we took last week – the many bumpy road kilometers – are the first of many as we try to unravel the structure and function of corridors for large carnivores in Gorongosa-Marromeu.