Photo: © Hannah Campbell 2016

By: Kirstie Ruppert (San Diego Zoo Global)

“Do leopards cause you any problems?” Your answer to this question likely depends on where you live in the world and your primary source of income. When this question was asked to community members around Loisaba Conservancy, 75% of people said yes, that leopards kill or injure their livestock.  Such experiences can influence community members’ attitudes towards leopards and decisions when they come across leopards in the future. These connections are important to understand for conservation because leopard populations are in decline across their range. Leopards are listed Vulnerable by IUCN, with human-leopard conflict listed as the greatest source of direct mortality.

Pastoralism is the dominant lifestyle in this region, so negative interactions charge the dynamics between people and wildlife. Most of the wildlife in Kenya lives outside of government parks and reserves, so it is critical to work with communities that are sharing land and resources with the wildlife that we want to protect. To better understand the ways that people are interacting with and perceiving leopards, San Diego Zoo Global is working in partnership with Loisaba Conservancy to conduct social and ecological (see “Luring Wild, Camera-Shy Leopards into Getting their Photo Taken”) research on the local leopard population.

In the summer of 2017, Ambrose Letoluai conducted close to 90 interviews in communities around Loisaba. Ambrose completed his secondary education with support from the Loisaba Community Conservation Foundation, recently graduated from the Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute, and was eager to return home and apply his new skills and passion for conservation.

He collected data so we can test the relationship between livestock loss, risk perceptions, attitudes, and behavioral intentions towards leopards. Another key aspect was getting information on the ways that people are currently protecting their livestock. People have reinforced their bomas (corrals) with wire mesh, put out solar lights, and fixed wind chimes or propellers to create noise and deter predators at night.

Photos © Ambrose Letoluai 2017

These measures may help prevent livestock loss to leopards, but we couldn’t know that until we started collecting this information and monitoring human-leopard interactions over time. Moving forward, we hope to combine what we learn about the leopards living on Loisaba with the information gathered in these interviews (like where the most livestock loss is occurring) to find solutions that work for communities and help protect leopards in the spaces that they share.

This research is a collaborative effort between San Diego Zoo Global and Loisaba Conservancy, and project investigators are: Nicholas Pilfold (SDZG), Ambrose Letoluai (Loisaba), Hannah Campbell (Loisaba), Megan Owen (SDZG), Symon Masiaine (Loisaba), Dino Martins (Mpala Research Centre), David O’Connor (SDZG), Matthew Brown (The Nature Conservancy), and Jenny Glikman (SDZG).

No day is ever the same!

For the sake of this blog let me try and break it down into the main thematic areas of my work. As the sun rises I am on my way to the security office to check up on the patrol teams. While their jobs include collecting data on wildlife sightings and threats to the conservancy as part of the SMART project, it is my job to check up on their progress and ensure that the phones are all working and collating data correctly.

Once I have that sorted, I jump in the plane with Michael, Loisaba’s new pilot on his morning flight patrol to see if we can locate any elephant groups. Elephant monitoring, as part of my role supporting Space for Giants,  is one of my most important jobs. After hopefully spotting a couple of suitable groups I go out by vehicle to locate and start identifying them. We are still at the beginning of this elephant ID project so usually they are new elephants but it is always exciting to see if I recognize an old friend. Over time we hope to identify all the individuals that pass through Loisaba to build an accurate picture of demographics and population size. I always keep an eye out to see whether any elephants are in trouble (e.g. signs of injuries) and alert the KWS vets when necessary. The cow elephant that was treated a few weeks ago on Loisaba for an arrow wound I had already identified in August, a female by the name of Esther.

Morning over, I head over to the Cactus Removal Team working in the south of the Conservancy. Loisaba, unfortunately suffers from an aggressive invasive species called Opuntiae engelmanii, a variety of prickly pear cactus. The elephants love it and it spread it across the Conservancy in their dung. It is critical for the health of the rangelands that it is removed. I check up on the team, monitor the work done and mark out new plots for its systematic removal.

Back to the office I sit down to collate the elephant sightings, draft the SMART management reports, enter the cactus removal data and catch up on emails.

Living and working on Loisaba Conservancy is unique. The incredible beauty of the place, the friendly colleagues and the exciting work. I love it!

By: Izzy Parsons