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

Fire, fynbos and felines

A team from Biosphere Expeditions has spent the past month trying to understand how fire affects a range of species from flowers to felines, in the fynbos area of South Africa. The study site (Blue Hill Nature Reserve) was impacted by a wildfire in early 2017, and whilst many may view this as destructive, it offers a unique research opportunity to assess how fire impacts this ecosystem.

The Cape Floral Kingdom (fynbos) of South Africa is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and as such a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is dominated by a fire-driven ecosystem – the fynbos biome with unsurpassed botanical richness: 7,000 of 9,000 plant species that are found here are endemic. In theory fire should be a positive force.

It is in the flower-filled Cape Fold Mountains that the Cape mountain leopard is also found – a leopard half the size of the savannah leopards of Africa, but with home ranges twice the size. As project scientist, Dr. Alan Lee says “despite the importance of fire in driving ecological patterns in the fynbos, the role of fire on determining population sizes or land use patterns of many mammal species (including leopard) is poorly understood”.

Leopards are iconic and awe-inspiring creatures. They are the last remaining apex predator in the fynbos, where once lions roamed. As well as surveying leopard distribution (via a camera trap networks), the team have also been conducting vegetation surveys, small mammal trapping, bird and bat surveys – to better understand the affects of fire on the habitat, prey base for leopards and other ecosystem components.

“Understanding the impact of fire on feline predators is really important” says Dr. Lee, “there is mounting evidence to show that smaller predators, e.g. black-backed jackal and mongoose species, are more common when leopards are rare or absent. Black-backed jackals are notorious stock predators, resulting in significant numbers of small stock loss per year: especially in the Karoo area adjacent to the fynbos – an area where leopards are largely absent”.

“Better understanding the pieces of the fynbos puzzle is vital” says expedition leader Dr. Craig Turner. “It is  a slow process, but critical process, if we are to better protect Cape leopards”.

The team still has much data to process, but highlights of the past month of field research include:

  • Several new camera trap monitoring stations have been established to monitor leopard, caracal and other mammal activity and movement patterns;
  • We completed as much small mammal trapping as we did in the first two years of this expedition, recording three new species at Blue Hill in 2017;
  • Several hundred camera images from Blue Hill have be analysed, identified and catalogued, revealing activity of leopards and African wildcat across a number of locations;
  • Over 12 km of nocturnal transects surveys have been completed across the Blue Hill area;
  • We have assisted with multiple bird and biodiversity surveys across six sites in the Karoo (covering around 3000 km);
  • Assisted bird biologists (John & Lizzie) with ongoing doctoral research on Cape Rockjumper’s at Blue Hill (a bird species endemic to the fynbos);
  • Established nearly 300 permanent monitoring plots for endemic honeybush plants used to make tea;
  • Completed the first diurnal and nocturnal mammal maps for Blue Hill;
  • Undertook further bat monitoring and entered/analysed two years worth of sonogram data;
  • Collected multiple leopard scats for DNA analysis, and kept searching for leopards.

A selection of pictures (c) Craig Turner from the expedition is below:

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