What do you do when your conservation donations are no longer enough? Leopards and other ‘big cats’ were a focus for this trip to Africa…
Story & photographs by Glenn Woodford
‘Wow… Just Wow! If I had a free hand, I’d pinch myself’, I heard myself saying as I picked up another vial of bright red blood. ‘Cap goes on, place in rack… pass another uncapped vial to the vet’. Here I was in the baked savannahs of Namibia, assisting a researcher take blood, fur and saliva samples from a young male wild leopard. He wasn’t awake…of course. We’d just caught him in a box trap and he’d been immobilised by the vet a short time ago. Now we were racing against the clock to get him ready for release before he starts to wake up…
Backtrack a few months and I was sitting in my office, contemplating what I was going to do with my long service leave. Having reached 10 years of service at an IT consulting firm, I was faced with this exciting decision. A concern that weighed firmly on my mind was that I was becoming increasing dissatisfied with my monthly donations to conservation organisations. It just wasn’t enough any more. I had to do more… I had to get involved, be on the ground and do something. I had to experience it… and a volunteer experience – a holiday with a difference – seemed like the best way to do that.
As someone who loves big cats, choosing a conservation volunteer programme that focused on the preservation of these iconic species was a no-brainer. Even though I wanted to see and experience what was happening all over the world in this area, I had to start somewhere; so Africa became my target continent. Perhaps South America next time.
I did some investigation and identified a bonafide scientific research project where I could volunteer; one that involved setting camera traps and box traps to catch leopards.
I then built an itinerary that would see me exploring Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa on a three month journey, working with lions, leopards and cheetahs… amongst other African wildlife. I’d also have an opportunity to be a tourist and see some of Africa’s most spectacular landscapes.
Highlights of my journey:
- capturing and collaring leopards on a research project through Biosphere Expeditions (in partnership with Berlin’s Institute of Zoology and Wildlife)
- lion monitoring (LEO Africa) on a game reserve near Kruger National Park
- looking after big and little cats in a sanctuary called N/a’an ku se near Windhoek
- kayaking with playful seals in Walvis Bay
- tracking leopards and spotted hyena near the Naukluft Mountain range in Namibia
- watching lions and hyenas hunt at Etosha and Kruger national parks
- exploring Botswana’s pristine Okavango Delta in flat bottomed, hollowed out Mokoro canoes
- climbing the dunes of Soussuvlei to watch the sunrise
- and photographing 1,000 year old dead trees in the salt pan of Deadvlei…
…What an adventure!
Back to our young male leopard
After taking samples and measurements, we were now ready move him. We carried him across a clearing, about 100 metres or so, to the release cage and started moving him into it. He was fighting to wake up and pretty much walked himself into the cage, albeit with a bit of help from us. He then promptly went back to sleep when we settled him back down.
Next, we repeated the process with the larger female leopard that we had also caught; his mother. We took photos and samples and collared her with a GPS collar. She was then carried to the same spot and placed on the ground so she could wake up near her boy. The vet gave her the immobilisation antidote and we high-tailed it out of there! They both woke up within a short period of time and we left them to find their way back into the mountains, where they would sleep off their hangovers for the next 24 hours or so.
In the following days, we were able to download the data from the mother’s collar and see that they had continued their way along the top of the mountain range, after having slept for a full day and night. This brought the total number of leopards on this research project to around 20.
One of the main focuses of this research project was wildlife conflict mitigation, particularly with the farmers of Namibia, who are the leopards’ major threat. In the conservancy where this project is based, the GPS data gathered shows the researchers where the leopards are moving on the farms in the area. This data is then provided to cooperative farmers, who can then move their vulnerable livestock to areas not frequented by these big cats, thus reducing the likelihood of a leopard taking one of their animals and their feeling that they need to shoot said leopard.
The research project has been proving very successful with word-of-mouth leading to more and more farmers hearing about it. They then go out and buy their own cage traps and GPS collars, then trap the resident leopards on their farms and call the researchers to come and collar them. In return, they too are provided with the relevant GPS data to help keep their livestock safe. Most farmers respect the leopards and don’t want to shoot them, with many realising that the cats are territorial – meaning that if you remove one, another will come and take over its home range before too long – so best to work in harmony with nature.
What I really achieved
While my whole adventure was mind blowing and the memories will last me a lifetime, possibly the main thing I walked away with was more precious than I could have ever imagined: hope.
It felt very satisfying to have the opportunity to see first-hand what is being done to help preserve leopard populations in Namibia. I met beautiful souls conducting amazing projects around the world in the area of conservation; specifically, many passionate people working their proverbial butts off to help ‘big cats’, along with other equally precious animals.
If you also feel that donating isn’t enough any more, or you’d just like to travel and do some conservation volunteering, do it now! Your passion and efforts are needed, and there has never been a better time. There are even opportunities here in Australia, with the likes of Conservation Volunteers Australia. Not only will your life will be changed; your experiences will impact those around you.
If, like me, you love ‘big cats’ and want to make a difference to them but cannot travel right now, there is something that you can do to help. Panthera, the world’s leading big cat conservation organisation, have a stack of camera trap photos that need wildlife identification. This is a simple yet intriguing process. To take part, follow this link – http://bit.ly/2aAcyIF
Glenn Woodford is a Melbourne based IT professional who loves nature, collaborating on big cat conservation projects and resolving feline behaviour problems. His passions include conservation, wildlife, cat psychology, photography, FPV drone racing, spirituality and various forms of healing including reflexology and Peruvian plant medicines.
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