The success and health of our world’s ecosystems is completely dependent upon the many flora and fauna that are a part of them. As such, big cats play a major role in the success of ecosystems, and as they fall victim to hunting and poaching, the impacts are far-reaching. We speak with Guy Balme, Leopard Program Director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, about his work on Project Pardus, and the wild cat with the largest range of them all
From the dry sands of the Arabian Deserts, to the verdant jungles of the Congo, all the way to China, the leopard has the largest range of any big cat, and is able to survive in a wide range of environments. Despite their remarkable adaptability, leopard populations are in steep decline across Africa and Asia, losing out roughly half of their previous territory. Alongside other big cats, such as tigers, lions, snow leopards, jaguars, pumas and cheetahs, Panthera works to protect the leopard, under the auspices of a dedicated programme, named Project Pardus. Its director, Guy Balme, is working to raise awareness of this big cat and the dangers it faces from poachers. Baku spoke to him about his work on Pardus, as well as his experiences with this majestic cat and how we can make a difference.
What kind of threats is the leopard under?
In most parts of leopard range, it is often the loss and fragmentation of their habitat, poaching for their skins as well as of their prey, and conflict due to the real and perceived threat they pose to livestock. Loss of prey in particular seems to be a real concern that requires urgent attention.
When it comes to poaching, for example, often traditions and attitudes are deeply ingrained in people. How do you tackle this?
Each situation is different, but one of the key lessons that we’ve learnt is not to rush solutions, or to impose them on local communities without their buy-in and a very clear understanding of the problem (from all perspectives – the leopard’s as well as that of a local society). Without buy-in from local stakeholders, be they government decision-makers or herders trying to protect their livestock, there’s little chance of conservation success. Understanding and addressing the human dimension is almost always more important than grasping the biological aspects of each scenario (not what I envisaged when I first studied zoology!).
In Iran, Project Pardus is undertaking the first radio-telemetry study of Persian leopards. How did that come about?
This was a side project that arose when we were establishing the first radio-telemetry study of Asiatic cheetah in central Iran. We were trying to catch cheetahs, and, in the process, caught several leopards. Given so little was known about the ecology and behaviour of Persian leopards, we felt it was too good an opportunity to pass up; hence, we radio-collared the leopards as well. The project only ran for a few years but we hoped that a better understanding of their spatial dynamics could help to inform their conservation.
What about career highs (or lows) in your work with wild cats?
This is a tough one as I have been working on leopards for over 15 years now and so of course there have been many high (and low) points. My PhD was very applied, we were looking at the impacts that human pressure on the outskirts of a protected area had on the local leopard population. Based on our early findings, we were able to convince conservation authorities to revise their policies pertaining to leopard management, which resulted in the leopard population rebounding dramatically; it doubled in the space of some four years. Ever since then, we’ve been applying many of the same principles to our leopard conservation work at Panthera, but at a much larger scale, often at a national and even regional scale.
What about special moments of connection with the animals themselves?
Too many to mention! From following leopards almost every night for six years during my PhD, to tracking snow leopards in Mongolia and catching jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal, there have been so many special moments – and hopefully lots more to come.
Tell us something we didn’t know about the leopard.
Leopards are far more social than we assume, with individuals interacting on a regular basis. We run a long-term study on leopards in South Africa near the Kruger National Park and this work is unravelling exactly how complex leopard society is, and how reliant they are on stable relationships in order to breed and survive.
OK, and how can we get involved? What can we do?
We use camera traps to monitor leopard populations across much of their range. Without reliable information on the status of populations it is difficult to effectively conserve a species. The camera traps generate a remarkable amount of valuable data; however, given how quickly the number of images accumulates, we often struggle to catalogue all the information. In partnership with Zooniverse, we have developed an online platform – called Camera CATalogue – where ‘citizen scientists’ (i.e. the public) can help to classify photographs, most importantly by identifying the species captured by the camera traps. If this is an area you can help with, check out our link here.
Photography courtesy of Paul Funston, Luke Hunter and Orjan Johannson