Leopard snared on Helderberg

The snared leopard in happier times, photographed by Ken Wynne-Dykes camera on March 31.

An afternoon of mountain biking on the Helderberg on Friday May 31, turned into a tale of sadness, for Elgin resident, Coenie van Niekerk, when he came upon a leopard caught in a snare, close by the cycling track he was riding on. Mr Van Niekerk immediately called his partner, Antoinette Geyer, who joined him on the mountain.

Devastated by what they had seen, they contacted Stellenbosch resident and friend, Barbara Hirsiger, for her assistance in reporting it to the authorities.

Ms Hirsiger takes up the story: “Early the next morning I made contact with Dr Matthew Schurch,
the human-wildlife conflict coordinator of Landmark Foundation, whom I know from his work on the Kgalagadi leopard project.

“He was in Riversdale, but he immediately made his way here. We all met at The Hanger Bike Co on Klein Helderbergpad Road. We arranged a 4×4 permit and Antoinette and Coenie guided us to the sad finding.

“It was established that a leopard had been caught and killed in a snare on private property, the Helderberg farm, just below the border with Helderberg Nature Reserve.

“Dr Schurch contacted the CapeNature officer for the region, and reported the incident. He took pictures and collected geodata and was then authorised to remove the carcass and destroy the snare. He took morphological data and a skin sample from the leopard.

“Upon arriving back at The Hanger Bike Co, we met a representative from CapeNature who collected the carcass from Dr Schurch.”

“Events like (this) are unfortunately a reality that we face. Illegal wire snares (Western Cape Nature Conservation Ordinance 19 of 1974), are set to catch animals like duikers and porcupines for bushmeat, but they are indiscriminate, and just like gin traps, they will catch a range of other animals, from leopards, to cape foxes,” Dr Schurch told Bolander.

“The leopard killed on the Helderberg mountain was caught in a wire snare around its neck. Unable to escape this snare, it would have most likely died as a result of dehydration, a long and painful death.

After death, the leopard most likely lay there for around three weeks before being discovered. It was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to provide a sex identification from the carcass. From the colouration of the teeth and from visual images – from subsequent matching to camera trap images – I would estimate that this was a young individual of a few years. It was most likely a dispersing adult that was looking for suitable territory where it could establish itself.

It is estimated that approximately 500 leopards exist in the Western Cape, based on research that Landmark Foundation has undertaken. These leopards are finding themselves at risk from a number of threats, including habitat loss, gin traps, snares, roads, and hunting by landowners, in retaliation for suspected conflict events.

This is resulting in a fragmented population with poor genetic flow between islands of suitable habitat. This could have disastrous consequences for the future survival of the leopards that exist on our mountains.”

Dr Schurch sent Bolander two photos, one of the snared leopard, and another, taken by a remote camera owned by Somerset West resident, Ken Wynne-Dyke. Dr Schurch confirmed to Bolander that the snared leopard was the same one in Mr Wynne-Dyke’s photo.

Mr Wynne-Dyke owns a number of camera traps which he has used for the past 10 years to photograph wildlife in the complex where he lives, and on the Helderberg mountain.

“The camera trap (which took the photograph of the snared leopard) is about three quarters of the way up the Two Oceans 4 x 4 trail, but on a path leading away from the trail,” Mr Wynne-Dyke told Bolander.

I have only captured the leopards on my camera since September 30 2016, eight times in total, and all except one have been of Bacardi BM26, identified by the Boland Leopard Trust, a subsidiary of the Cape Leopard Trust.

I have been able to identify Bacardi each time as he has always walked from left to right in front of the camera thereby showing his right flank. Each leopard has a distinctive set of spots.

According to the Boland Leopard Trust, Bacardi walks regularly from somewhere near Stellenbosch all the way to Sir Lowry’s Pass and back again. Recently, however, we had a leopard walking from right to left and have not been able to identify him or her yet.”

It is this leopard, walking from right to left in the photograph, that Dr Schurch says had its life tragically ended by a poacher’s snare.

Setting snares is illegal in the Western Cape, as Dr Schurch points out, and Ms Hirsiger feels anybody who walks, runs, hikes or cycles on trails in the area must be vigilant for snares. 

“Since snares and traps are illegal in the Western Cape we are allowed to remove them, no matter where we find them, and I believe we should do so.”

Bolander also spoke to Owen Wittridge, biodiversity co-ordinator for the Helderberg, about the incident: “We are aware of the incident, and we have alerted all of our staff to be on the lookout for snares as they go about their duties.”

Anybody finding a snare is urged to either remove it, or to report it, with an exact location, property name if possible, the materials used to construct the snare, and whether or not it was removed, to the Cape Leopard Trust at anita@capeleopard.org.za

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