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.
Mature male leopards are not only at least 60% larger than females, but they also are broader, have larger chest girths and larger, longer heads. There is something else that you may notice about mature male leopards – their large necks are adorned with a loose fold of skin that hangs from the underside of the neck. These skin folds are called dewlaps. Dewlaps are often seen in different species throughout the animal kingdom, most notably in certain birds, lizards and hoofed mammals. In mature male leopards, a well-developed dewlap is prominent and is one of the best ways to distinguish age. However, the function of the dewlap remains unknown and largely unexplored.
It is speculated that these enigmatic ornaments are linked to sexual selection or male fitness as they are sexually dimorphic, meaning they are only exhibited in one sex and not in both sexes. When discussing another markedly sexual dimorphic feature amongst cats, the mane of a male lion, Charles Darwin wrote, “the mane of the lion forms a good defence against the one danger to which he is liable, namely the attacks of rival lions.” The idea behind this hypothesis is that adaptations, such as body armour or weaponry like antlers on male deer, increases the ability of males competing against other males. The winner often is the male that gets to mate with the female and passes on his genetics. Results of more contemporary research, however, indicate that injuries sustained during fights between lions do not appear to differ between maned and non-maned subadult males nor female lions, suggesting that the mane/neck area is not a high target region during fights. Instead, observation shows that the back and hindquarters seem to be the targeted areas during these confrontations. Biologists believe that the role of the mane of a male lion is an indicator of sexual fitness. Studies using life-sized toy lions sporting contrasting mane colours and lengths found that male lions are more likely to approach the lions with lighter, shorter manes and female lions are more drawn to males with darker manes. This suggests that the shorter, blonder maned males are less intimidating to rival males and thus have a perceived lower fitness.
The theory can be applied to hypothesise about the functions of a dewlap on a male leopard. However, fights between elusive male leopards are rarely observed and documented by scientists. This makes it difficult to confirm if the leopard’s dewlap has any defensive functions or if it may serve a similar purpose to that of a large, dark mane in sexual selection due to it being an indicator of fitness (and longevity).
Fighting with other males has potential to lead to injury or death. Even the smallest injuries can fester and inhibit hunting abilities leading to decline in body condition and may result in death. Another speculation about the dewlap is that it simply makes the mature males appear larger and more intimating to rival males. Typically, as a male leopard ages, his dewlap enlarges in size. Mature males hold larger territories and have more opportunity to mate with females. This also means that there are more opportunities to come into conflict with other males seeking the same territories and females. It would be ideal to avoid physical confrontation and potential injury by being able to display fighting capability and fitness to deter potential rivals without physically engaging them. Younger and smaller males may be dissuaded from engaging in a fight with a larger male sporting a more pronounced dewlap. Alternatively, oestrous females may select males with larger dewlaps suggesting that the male has higher fitness. Studies have not yet been conducted to determine if dewlap size correlates with testosterone levels or linked to reproductive success but may be indicative of longevity.
While more research into the function of a male leopard’s dewlap needs to be conducted to either confirm or deny these hypotheses, we do know that dewlaps can be used when assessing the male’s age. As a male matures, his dewlap become more developed and is most prominent in males seven years of age and older.
While the function of this loose skin fold on a male leopard may currently remain a scientific mystery, we can still appreciate the bravado that this physical feature gives to the impressive silhouette of a mature male leopard stalking through the dark.
Well, the field work portion of it anyways… now on to the computer side of getting it all organised and prepped so we can load it up on CamCAT! I cannot wait for you all to see this survey. Again, I apologise now for all of the vehicles, but I promise the animal photos are worth it! I hope we have some brown hyaena lovers out there – this site is teeming with them!
I still owe you a more detailed post and I will get that up soon, but until then here is a little video montage of the first survey of the year that I am running.