From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

The devil is the detail, when it comes to expeditions. This is true of the planning, organisation and execution of most of the fieldwork. The latter also requires a combination of hard work, flexibility, patience and luck. Particularly when you are trying to get data on Cape leopard and caracals.
We are all realistic that only the ‘lucky’ will encounter them face-to-face. However, we have technology on our side, in the form of camera traps. The ‘detail’ is picking where to locate them, so you have to think like a cat and site them where they will hopefully pass. These camera traps give us ‘eyes’ in the field in multiple locations, over a huge area and every hour of the day or night.

We also have the eyes of our team in the field every day, also looking for signs of these predators, which can range from tracks to scratched trees to scat. We have all been issued with ‘scat bags’, so potential leopard scat can be collected, verified by DNA analysis, and in turn help build a DNA database, to track movements of leopards – dead or alive. A powerful conservation tool from such small evidence.

Detail in scientific or conservation terms often equates to data. Whether this comes from our mammal mapping, small mammal trapping or camera trapping, it all helps to inform our understanding of how leopards, caracals and other species (often the prey base) use the fynbos environment. However, we shouldn’t become fixated on the predators, as we are also here to understand the wider biodiversity of this environment, which includes the ongoing work on the bird and vegetation. After all, we are not on safari, where we are spoon-fed the big five from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.

The weekend did give us a new understanding and a chance to get some historical perspective on the landscape. A morning walking to some rock art sites and viewing some stone artifacts (e.g. stone hand axes) from the wider area gave us alternative appreciation of how people and wildlife once used and survived in this landscape.

Our modern day ‘survival’ in terms of fieldwork at least, is often vehicle dependent. It’s a long walk over tough terrain to most of our field sites, so vehicles are vital, but things go wrong. And an afternoon fixing the rear shock absorbers on one of our field vehicles (thanks Steve) was another detail that needed addressing but means our fieldwork can continue into its last week.

So as we enter the home straight of this year’s expedition, we already know the team’s hard work and patience in the field has delivered some great data. The checks on the camera traps will now begin and fingers crossed we’ve got the detail of the set-up right. We just need a bit of luck on our side to reveal more data on our target species.

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