By: Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D., San Diego Zoo Global

Dr. Nicholas Pilfold is a Large Carnivore Specialist with the Institute for Conservation Research at San Diego Zoo Global, and is a co-investigator for the Leopard Conservation Project. The aims of the Leopard Conservation Project are to better understand the ecology of leopards living on Loisaba Conservancy and reduce conflict between leopards and livestock with surrounding communities. The project began in June 2017.

Leopards can be one of the most challenging animals to track in the wild. Elusive and shy, leopards are masters of disguise, often seamlessly blending into the background. Of the Big Five, it is the one that most visitors to Africa never see.

However, for their conservation, it is vital that we determine how many leopards exist in the wild, and in many areas this information is missing. So, what is the best way to count leopards?

That is one of the questions we are trying to answer in a new conservation initiative on Loisaba Conservancy in central Kenya. We are using remote cameras to photograph leopards, and their unique coat patterns allow us to distinguish individuals.

But it is not as easy as just setting a bunch of cameras in the wild and hoping for the best. Researchers will often set cameras out in regularly spaced grids, with the idea of getting a sample of the animals that occupy the habitat. However, camera grids aimed at snapping pictures of secretive animals like leopards can suffer from low detection rates, and it can take many cameras operating for many days to get a sense of abundance. This can slow the time required to get an accurate population estimate and increase the workload of sorting thousands of images to find the few images of leopards.

This year in Kenya, we are taking a different tact: luring leopards into getting their picture taken. To understand what may attract a leopard to our cameras, we turned to our resident leopard experts here at San Diego Zoo, Gaylene Thomas and Todd Speis. They told us: Successful scent attractants for leopards include a variety of herbs – except catnip, ironically!  Scents such as wintergreen, cinnamon, and colognes such as CK Obsession for Men also do well.

So given that advice, we headed to Kenya armed with colognes and essential oils – not the usual items one has for fieldwork. We are currently testing which scent lures work the best to bring leopards out from hiding and have them linger long enough to get good images of coat patterns.

The initial results are promising, as our cameras are picking up leopards, and coat patterns are already starting to yield results. For example, Guide Brown from Tented Camp on Loisaba Conservancy took several pictures of a male leopard making a stunning daylight kill. When we began to examine the first sets of images from our cameras, we noticed an exact match in coat pattern on the left flank.

Not only will coat pattern recognition allow us to track leopards across space and time, it also provides the opportunity for citizen science. With the high powered cameras that many tourists carry, we are now initiating a sharing platform for tourist leopard photos on Loisaba Conservancy, so that we can maximize our detection of these elusive predators.


Copyright: © Nicholas Pilfold

Caption: Wildlife cameras deployed by SDZG researches capture an image of a male leopard on June 30, 2017 (left). After comparison, it was determined that this male was the same that a tour guide captured on his cell phone on June 10, 2017 (right). The red boxes indicate characteristic coat markings that are unique to this leopard.




Managing a conservancy as vast and diverse as Loisaba in a challenging landscape with limited resources can be tough, really tough. To do so effectively we have to be ‘Smart’ – literally. SMART also known by its longer name (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) is a specifically developed protected area management tool designed to measure, evaluate and improve the overall effectiveness of law enforcement patrols. In doing so protected area managers, such as Loisaba Conservancy CEO Tom Silvester are provided with the necessary information at their fingertips to make adaptive management decisions.

In April we started the SMART journey with assistance from our partners Space for Giants and the Zoological Society of London. Amos Chege and Redempta Njeri spent several months gradually training rangers in the use of a simple mobile phone App called Cybertracker, which is essentially the data collection vehicle for SMART. Some of the rangers got the hang of it straight away while others struggled, but by the end of June we had identified and trained sufficient rangers to have one competent user per patrol group on the conservancy.

Today, every patrol group on the conservancy is hard at work collecting critical information on wildlife sightings and potential threats (e.g. snares and/or poaching) to wildlife. Because the phones that the rangers use are GPS enabled, we are able to view their patrols on a computer giving us an indication of the patrol effort (e.g. distance patrolled, hours patrolled etc.) where they recorded sightings and threat and possibly most importantly, what the blind spots are on the conservancy.

Every week, Amos Chege, Loisaba’s Conservation Officer visits each patrol base and downloads the data onto his computer. Together with input from the Space for Giants team a weekly report is created giving us a spatial view of what is happening on the conservancy and this is then discussed by the management to take appropriate action. SMART is proving to be a ‘game-changer’ and is going to help Loisaba develop into one of the leading conservancies in the landscape.

By: Izzy Parsons