Do you remember Tokoloshe, the leopard caught on camera with a snare embedded in her abdomen? We’re happy to announce that recent camera trap images show her without the piece of metal around her middle. Read this miraculous story of a leopard who fought the odds to survive, and thrive, in South Africa and learn more about the threat of snaring.
Leopards like Tokoloshe that live in the Soutpansberg Mountains of South Africa face persecution daily from their human neighbours. Researchers led by the Primate and Predator Project have been tracking Tokoloshe, named after a creature from Zulu mythology, through camera traps since 2013. Over the years, researchers have even seen her with two cubs, Judoka and Schrodinger. Last Spring, a new photograph surfaced showing her with a snare caught around her middle.
Since we first spotted her lacerated belly, we would see a new image of her only every few months pop up on camera traps. Luckily, it appeared that her condition was improving over time; indicating that she was surviving despite the snare wrapped around her abdomen. It is a testament to Tokoloshe’s elusiveness that she has survived for so long in such a dangerous area. But because of this elusiveness, ecologists struggled to track her down to intervene and remove the embedded snare. However, Tokoloshe is a fighter.
Even more recently, we have reason to celebrate! Durham University's Primate and Predator Project (PPP) caught images of Tokoloshe, identified by her unique spot pattern, WITHOUT a snare at all! There are a few theories as to how the snare fell off; perhaps it came off when she was mating with a male, she could have gotten it off by rolling against the ground or a tree, or it could be that the snare simply rusted away. Whichever way it happened, we are thrilled to see that this female leopard is once again thriving in her domain.
The main threats to leopards in South Africa are illegal human activities such as shooting, poisoning, and increasingly, snaring. Staff, students and volunteers at PPP routinely do sweeps of the Luvhondo Private Nature Reserve and surrounding properties to remove snares and rarely do they come back empty-handed. On one occasion they collected 75 snares and then later, after a second snare sweep in the same area, they found 30 more.
Wire snares are inexpensive and easy to obtain, set and use. This unfortunately makes them very effective at capturing wildlife. Snares are typically set as a means of harvesting bushmeat, however; snares are non-selective and can capture anything that is unlucky enough to get trapped. Large carnivores are particularly susceptible to being caught in a snare due to their expansive territories. Many snares are placed illegally by poachers on properties without the landowner ever knowing. Since they don’t want to be caught, poachers do not check snares often and sometimes will abandon or lose snares if they feel the risk is too high.
Not all snares are for harvesting bushmeat for consumption. PPP Community Engagement Officer and ecologist Philip Faure has removed snares which had been specifically designed to target leopards. The farmer who had set the snare he removed did so because he had lost a calf to a leopard and in retaliation wanted to kill the big cat. In order to reduce this tension, Philip works with local farmers, landowners and communities in the Soutpansberg region to help them adopt non-lethal techniques to co-existing with carnivores. This includes building predator-proof bomas, or corrals, and using guard dogs to protect livestock.
I recently retuned back to the Soutpansberg area to set up our yearly Panthera Program leopard density survey to monitor populations through camera traps. It was on this survey last April that we first photographed Tokoloshe with the snare around her waist. As we drove through the stunning mountains and valleys that make up our survey site, I could not help but glimpse up into the thicket and smile knowing that Tokoloshe is somewhere out there, snare-free and surviving.