Region: Cederberg Mountains, South Africa
Caracals (Felis caracal) are widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, yet little has been published regarding their spatial ecology and there is a paucity of data to address even the most basic ecological questions. Caracals are classified as problem animals in Namibia and South Africa and are commonly regarded as vermin, because they are reputedly responsible for significant losses running into hundreds of millions of rands in the livestock farming industry. This negative perception has resulted in extensive persecution. The consequent management of the species by farmers has led to an ongoing threat to ecosystem biodiversity as a result of indiscriminate control measures such as traps or poisons, especially in the arid Karoo biome of the Cape.
On the other hand, human persecution and habitat loss have led to catastrophic declines of apex predators, like leopards, commonly associated with dramatic increases in the abundance of smaller predators like caracals. This phenomenon is known as mesopredator release hypothesis, a relatively new concept that states that when top predators decline in a system, middle-level predators (mesopredators) such as caracals will increase.
The need to understand how best to predict and manage mesopredator release is urgent – mesopredator outbreaks are causing high ecological, economic and social costs.
If we are to better predict the consequences of predator management, it is critical that we understand the dynamics of intra-guild relationship among predators. It is one of the aims of this project that will take into account the role apex predators – in this case, leopard – play in controlling or affecting the behaviour of mesopredators, such as caracals. This comes at a time when a global move to ‘re-wild’ areas and reintroduce large carnivores is being promoted. While it is unlikely to replace the entire predator guild made extinct in the Cape, it may be that reintroduction or added protection of leopard in areas where they were extirpated may have a positive impact on rebalancing the predator levels and thus farmer-predator conflict issues.
Knowing whether leopards are a limiting factor for caracals or other mesopredators will therefore prove useful in long-term conservation management strategies. Increased knowledge regarding the range use of caracals is also fundamental in terms of furthering the understanding of this cat’s ecology, and is important for developing more effective and ecologically sound methods for its management on private land.
The overall aim of this project is to determine the influence of leopard as an apex predator on the spatial and behavioural ecology of caracal, a mesopredator and primary competitor.
A) To collect data on caracal ecology:
– Capture and collar at least 6 caracals
– Estimate caracal home range, home range overlap between individuals, relative abundance
– Assess the diet of caracals using both faecal and GPS cluster analysis
– Assess the level of conflict with farmers and the farm characteristics
B) To understand the dynamics of intra-guild relationship among leopard and caracal:
– Determine the influence of leopard on caracals’ spatial and behavioural ecology, using existing leopard data
– Present recommendations on the broad management of the caracal in the Western Cape Province, in relation to apex predators and conflict with farmers
Carnivores are difficult to study due to their mainly nocturnal and elusive nature. Remote means will therefore be needed to collect data and attain research objectives. The aim is to capture and collar at least six adult caracals to be able to obtain a robust sample size for statistical analysis.
Caracals will be caught using traditional walk-through traps and single-door baited traps. They will be fitted with a light GPS radio collar (less than 2% of a female body weight) with remote drop-off mechanism. The GPS location data used to conduct analysis (using both software R and ArcGIS) will determine home ranges, habitat selection and preferences, and activity.
GPS location clusters will be used to study diet (locate kill sites and scat). Data will be compared to existing leopard data.
Data provided by the remote camera study being done by the Cape Leopard Trust (CLT) will be used to quantify prey activity over the period 2008-2012. Line transects will be conducted to determine wild prey availability and estimate their density, which has never been done in the area.
In order to assess the level of conflict between livestock farmers and caracals in the area, small stock farmers will be interviewed during visits led by CapeNature.
The results of the study will be published in peer-reviewed journals. The project is collaborating with several South African and French magazines as well as South African newspapers.
In the field, the results of research will be used by the CLT to change the mindsets of farmers, so as to adopt a more holistic approach to livestock farming and ensuring biodiversity conservation, as well as by the statutory conservation body, CapeNature, to implement a more effective predator management strategy.