African leopards are one of the world’s most iconic wildlife species. Enigmatic and elusive, African leopards are a bucket-list highlight for many on safari, while at the same time, a nuisance animal to many local people that live alongside them. Leopards are stealthy, and this makes them difficult to track and therefore a joy to see on safari. But their stealthy nature as predators also includes slipping into livestock bomas (enclosures) at night and killing them. In the local communities that surround Mpala, leopards have often been the principal species of blame when livestock are killed or injured by an unseen predator. This in turn leads to conflict between humans and leopards, and at times, retaliatory killings.
Leopards face a number of conservation threats across their range, including habitat loss, reduced prey, and wildlife trafficking for parts. But it has become apparent that retaliatory killings, which occur for real or perceived loss of livestock, is the top threat leopards face and may even exacerbate other conservation issues like illegal trade. Additionally, the elusive nature of leopards makes them a difficult study species for scientists, and as such, limited information on their population status exists within Kenya. Due to this information deficit, conservation management plans are yet to be created for leopards, leaving them decades behind their large carnivore counterparts.
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) began studying African leopards on Mpala and other nearby conservancies, as well as on communal lands. They called the program Uhifadhi Wa Chui, which means Conservation of Leopards in Kiswahili. Uhifadhi Wa Chui is split into two core objectives:
- Population Status
In 2018, this initiative established a grid of remote trail cameras spanning 420 km2, including Mpala, with a focus on tracking leopards in private conservancies. Leveraging limited information, the project has strategically positioned cameras near Boscia trees, known for retaining leopard claw marks. Graduate student Beatrice Chataigner’s thesis revealed that these tree-focused sites significantly increased leopard detection. The team experimented with using perfumes to enhance visitation rates and image quality. With over five years of observations, the project is analyzing the images to calculate leopard density, providing Kenya’s first empirical population status assessment, albeit in a localized area. Future plans involve scaling up assessments across major corridors and sequencing the African leopard genome for genetic research. Driven by ongoing collaborations and advancements, they aim to conduct rapid population assessments in 2024.
- Community Coexistence
The Uhifadhi Wa Chui initiative, initiated in response to community concerns about leopard-livestock conflicts around Mpala, has evolved significantly since 2017. Beginning with community interviews to gauge attitudes, the project implemented various strategies from 2018-2021. A community reporting network documented thousands of conflict events, revealing that leopards and hyenas accounted for around 90% of attacks. Camera systems deployed at livestock bomas provided valuable insights into nighttime attacks. The study identified differences in predatory behavior between hyenas and leopards, leading to successful predation deterrence strategies at 120 bomas. The groundbreaking Chui Mamas Centre, focusing on women’s health and economic prosperity, also contributes to creating a self-sufficient market for deterrents. The next phase involves deploying GPS collars on leopards to refine understanding and mitigate potential conflict. The multifaceted approach aims to balance conservation efforts and community well-being.
Institution: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
Principal Investigator: Population Status – Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, Community Coexistence – Drs. Kirstie Ruppert and Tomas Pickering
Project Local Lead: Population Status – Laiyon Lenguya, Community Coexistence – Ambrose Letoluai
Project Start: 2017-2018