The Big Cats
Lion and leopard are two of Africa’s most iconic and charismatic carnivores. As a function of their role at the top of the food chain, they are vital to proper ecosystem functioning and health. However, both of these species are facing global population decline through the effects of burgeoning human population growth, and the resultant persecution and habitat fragmentation.
Approximately half of all habitat available to African lions is currently found in commercial trophy-hunting areas; yet the vast majority of lion studies have been conducted inside core protected areas such as national parks – the need for a comprehensive lion study within trophy-hunting areas has generally been neglected.
Conservation research on these key ecological species was initiated on the Bubye Valley Conservancy in 2009, beginning with simple density estimates calculated by counting animal tracks on dirt roads. Since the project’s conception; the scope of the research has grown to include GPS collaring for population monitoring and interaction analyses, camera-trapping to determine population density, demographics and age structure, and activity loggers to help us better understand the behavioural ecology and eco-physiology of these species. The breadth of research has also increased to include habitat and herbivore surveys, which are fundamental to understanding the ecology of any species in a dynamic ecosystem.
The research on BVC has so far produced three doctoral projects through the University of Oxford. Byron du Preez completed his study in 2013, which used leopards as a model species to investigate the impact of lions on the behavioural ecology of a competitively subordinate carnivore, and highlighted the conservation implications that could result from uncontrolled lion populations at densities higher than the local system can sustain. In 2015, Paul Trethowan built on tbis study of lion-leopard conflict on the conservancy, and expanded the research to assess lion behavioural ecology using activity loggers mounted on the collars of study animals. Matt Wijers is currently undertaking the most recent doctoral study, which focuses on testing the application of new technology to the monitoring of large carnivores.
In addition to these projects, the ecology unit at BVC also conducts surveys to assist management of key species on the conservancy. These include an annual lion population survey, herbivore counts and long-term camera trap surveys targeting leopard, lion and hyenas.