Meet Tokoloshe, a female leopard living in South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains.
Tokoloshe was named after a dwarf-like water sprite in Zulu mythology that can become invisible and is rarely seen. Luckily, camera trap surveys have made Tokoloshe less elusive than these fabled creatures, and researchers have been able to watch her mature into a beautiful leopardess. Since first spotted on cameras set by the Primate and Predator Project (PPP) in 2013, she has reared two cubs: Judoka, who disappeared from the camera grid after some extensive forest clearing on a neighboring property, and Schrodinger.
Tokoloshe wasn’t born in a national park or reserve protected by reinforced fences and anti-poaching units, and she isn’t a leopard you would come across while on a guided safari game drive. Her range is comprised of true wilderness surrounded by multiple private properties and farms, the owners of which sometimes come into conflict with local wildlife.
Research in this area has found rapidly declining leopard densities since studies began in 2012, likely due to illegal snaring, shooting, and poisoning. Farmers have been known to set snares and kill leopards due to perceived livestock predation risk, as well as to potentially sell their skins and body parts. PPP Community Engagement Officer and ecologist, Philip Faure is currently working with the local communities not just to educate them about wildlife mitigation solutions, but also to assist in the building of predator-proof bomas to protect their livestock from predation.
However, despite these efforts, leopards continue to be snared. During a recent Panthera camera trap survey, this image was captured of Tokoloshe.
As you can see, she has a snare embedded into her abdomen causing deep lacerations. Her overall body condition has deteriorated as a result of her injuries. She is 5 years old and should be in her prime, a cub at her side. But now, thanks to human cruelty, she is fighting for her life.
Sadly, helping Tokoloshe is not as clear-cut as one might think. First of all, she is a wild leopard not at all habituated to vehicles or people. Her only human interactions have likely been negative since she has grown up in such a highly persecuted area. This will make it nearly impossible for a veterinarian to get close enough to dart her.
A cage trapping method would also likely be unsuccessful, as she probably has the wherewithal to recognize the trap and keep her distance. Furthermore, the wilderness that Tokoloshe calls home has very limited road and trail access, making matters even more difficult.
The PPP’s predator ecologist has been diligently checking the local camera traps for any signs of Tokoloshe, trying to determine her current status and location. After weeks without a sighting, she was presumed dead.
But then, three weeks later, another photo series showing Tokoloshe popped up.
The snare is still around her abdomen and her body condition is poor, but she is alive. Ecologists are still trying to devise a plan to capture Tokoloshe and remove the snare, but the situation isn’t promising: It has been over four weeks since she was last photographed, and time is not on her side.
As for her young cub, Schrodinger? He was captured on a camera trap nearly 5 kilometers from where Tokoloshe was last seen and appears healthy. Although at only a year old, Schrodinger has dispersed earlier than expected—leopard cubs will typically remain dependent on their mothers until around 18 months of age—it is possible that he will survive on his own.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story for leopards, or for many of Africa’s other large carnivores. Because snares capture animals indiscriminately, Panthera’s cameras show many different species affected by illegal snaring, like the hyena in the photo below.
The leopard is one of the most persecuted large cats in the world. Leopards have vanished from at least 49 percent of their historic range in Africa and 84 percent of their historic range in Eurasia, and have been declared extinct in six of their former range countries. With such swiftly declining populations, each leopard’s life is important.