Scientists have studied wild carnivores roaming protected areas for a long time, but predator numbers in unprotected areas remained unclear until recently. In Platjan, Limpopo, where farmers share the land with leopards and other predators, researchers led by Philip Faure have now tracked these elusive animals.
They were surprised to find large populations of leopards, spotted hyaena, brown hyaena, and African civet after reviewing photos snapped by camera traps every time an animal walked past. The research team, which included Professor Jan Venter from the UP Mammal Research Institute, reviewed over 3 000 images taken by 72 camera traps for three months.
The researchers say it is crucial to understand how predators coexist with humans in unprotected areas peppered with farms so conservation and agricultural activities can align rather than oppose one another.
"Commercial farmers own large proportions of land in South Africa," says Venter. With just 9.2% of land in South Africa under formal protection for wild species, large numbers of wild carnivores find themselves near privately-owned farms, which can be a recipe for conflict.
"For farmers and predators to coexist into the future, I think new generations of farmers should employ 'green practices', such as certifications that show that agricultural products are 'predator friendly'," says Venter. These kinds of initiatives involve consumers, who can make the choice to support farmers in their ecosystem protection efforts.
He says farmers should feel the need to protect carnivores living nearby since they help to protect the ecosystems of agricultural areas.
For example, small predators like the civet hunt smaller critters that might be considered pests to farmers, while larger predators, like the African leopard, suppress populations of other animals that can cause damage, like a black-backed jackal. Venter says predators like hyaenas also prevent the spread of disease by removing carcasses.
This study has given researchers, local authorities in charge of conservation, and local farmers in Platjan an idea of how many predators roam unprotected lands for the first time.
"It is just as important to know what's going on in protected areas as much as in unprotected areas," Venter says. "I like this kind of study because it creates a natural history record that will be important decades from now."