Capturing the Leopard's Struggle and Beauty: a Wildlife Photographer's Perspective

leopard conservation owen grobler
Within the last 20 years, the leopard population has drastically decreased in South Africa and worldwide. One of the most significant contributors to leopard mortality is human-wildlife conflict and loss of habitat. Owen Grobler, wildlife photographer and resident of the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate in Limpopo is concerned about the decreasing population. His photograph of a female leopard crawling underneath a fence into the estate was recently chosen for the book Remembering Leopards by Remembering Wildlife. This charity initiative contributes to conserving the remaining wildlife we have. Grobler aims to create more awareness and interest in leopards so they can survive better. But what can we do to protect our remaining leopard population?

leopard conservation south africa

Ntsakelo male, one of Kulua’s recent offsprings now hunting independently on the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate at night

Marie Schmidt: You’ve got a blog and a coffee table book called “Searching for Spots”. How did your fascination for leopards start?

Owen Grobler: Growing up in Zimbabwe, I was always naturally inclined. I have always had a love for nature. It primarily started with birds of prey, but when we left Zimbabwe and moved to Johannesburg, it was just time spent in a big city. I only really started going into wild spaces again in 2015/2016. We went to Pilanesberg National Park, where we had a couple of great leopard sightings. I started to take an interest in the Leopard ID project being run there. Leopards are very secretive animals and very difficult to find. I enjoyed learning about their behaviour, and obviously, they are wonderful animals to photograph as well. When we decided to leave Johannesburg and moved to the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate in 2018, I really wanted to do something that was conservation oriented. That was when the idea for Searching for Spots came. We (him and his wife) started the blog with the hope of promoting predator-human coexistence and trying to create a little bit of interest and awareness around leopards. I guess it’s their secretive nature, my thirst for understanding behaviour and how great they are to photograph that started the fascination.

leopard conservation south africa

The Ntsakelo male becoming more mature and confident giving Owen the opportunity to photograph him at daytime

Marie Schmidt: Out of 3.500 entries, your photograph of a female leopard crawling underneath the fence into the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate is one of the 20 chosen for the book Remembering Leopards. It has been taken in daylight by yourself and not from one of your camera traps. How did this photo happen, and what’s the story behind it?

Owen Grobler: You are 100% correct. One of the most magnificent things about that photograph is the fact that it happened in daylight. It took me almost two years just to get the opportunity with that leopard. Two years of incredible per surveillance, patience and respect. That leopardess is a remarkable animal. She has been able to adapt to a peri-urban environment brilliantly, so much so that she is hardly ever seen. She has built her habits around avoiding people and any potential issues that she may have with them. She has managed to raise at least four litters in and around the area. Following an animal like that who is so hypersensitive to humans and monitoring her is very difficult. If I did get a sighting of her, I was always very quick to be super respectful: switch the engine off, turn the lights off and have a thermal monocular that I would watch her through. And I think all of those factors, together with me following her and being respectful, eventually resulted in that photograph. I was desperate to get an image of her that showcased how versatile she is in the environment that she has to survive in. She had a youngster at that time and had a kill on the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate, so the youngster kept her there. The youngster wanted to enter the property. We were quick to reverse, give them space and just wait and I do believe she knew the vehicle, and she knew that it hadn’t caused any issues for her in the past, so eventually, she decided to enter the property, and that’s when I got the images.

leopard conservation south africa

Mbilu female, also a daughter of Kulua, has set up her territory on a nearby disturbed landscape in Hoedspruit

Marie Schmidt: Wow, what a story. Not many people are so lucky to see a leopard in their life. Are the residents of the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate proud knowing that there are leopards around, or do some also worry about them?

Owen: Grobler, I do believe that the large majority of the people are very excited about having leopards here, and the leopards add value to the property. I think you are always gonna have your group of people that perhaps need to be educated, and a little bit of positive awareness needs to be shared. I think Covid did have an impact on that. I feel like there are people moving here from the cities, and they aren’t quite sure what they are moving to, but in my experience, it hasn’t been too difficult to change mindsets and put people a little bit more at ease with predator-human coexistence. The Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate does provide guidelines, and they encourage people to be responsible not moving around at night, ensure that children aren’t moving around on the streets at night, and ensure that your dogs are indoors at night - just basic responsible behaviour. There has never been an incident between a predator and a person on the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate, so from a personal perspective, I’m quite confident that, unless an animal is very ill and desperate, chances are exceptionally low of there being any issues. All of the predators are very aware of how many people there are here, and they are averse to being seen by them.

leopard and cub at fence south africa

After 1,5 hrs of waiting and hiding, the Kulua female and her cub Mbilu finally enter the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate looking straight at Owen

Marie Schmidt: It’s great to hear that the coexistence works well in the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate because that’s not always the case. What kind of conflicts can arise between humans and leopards?

Owen Grobler: If we talk about South Africa, specifically where fences are used, the buffer zones between private protected areas and human settlements are generally shrinking and, in some cases, non-existent now due to the rising population. There is human activity all the way up to the fences of properties. If we talk specifically about leopards, it’s very difficult to keep them on privately protected land. They are versatile, very adaptable animals, and if they do escape, they are opportunistic hunters. If they come across livestock, there’s always a chance that they are going to take it. That can result in retribution, where humans that have settled on the perimeter of those protected areas will kill that animal. With the buffer zones shrinking or being absent, it’s even more important for the private reserves to engage with the communities, empower and train them and come up with ways to ensure that both parties value the animals and benefit from them.

leopard conservation south africa

The Tlanga male hunted on the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate for a while before he dispersed. He has not been seen for a few months.

Marie Schmidt: The leopard population is decreasing worldwide. How is the population looking in South Africa? The initiative Remembering Leopards sounds almost like an obituary.

Owen Grobler: Yes, it is a little concerning. The Remembering Wildlife Team has done a tremendous job, not only for leopards. The book they are publishing now is going to be their biggest yet, and it’s generating a lot of revenue for conservation. They brought together the top photographers in the world and have created a lot of interest and raised funds. Personally, I think they do want to make it clear that something needs to be done, hence the name Remembering Leopards. We actually need to act and do something. As far as South Africa goes on the IUCN Global Red List, leopards were listed as Least concern in 2002, by 2008 they were Near threatened, and in 2016 they are now Vulnerable. They have lost 60-70% of their historical range in this country, which is pretty scary. It is quite a terrifying statistic, and unfortunately, of the range they have left, only 17% is protected land. Leopards are faced with great challenges, and that is why a project like Remembering Wildlife is so dear to me because leopards are having to adapt and live in more urban or peri-urban environments. The Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate showcases that if you just give them a chance to adapt, they will be able to survive. It’s very easy to get disheartened when you see statistics like that coming out, but it probably means we need to go into hyperdrive with how much awareness and education we put out there and do our best to conserve these animals.

leopard conservation south africa

His unique spot pattern on his chest makes it easy to identify Ntsakelo

Marie Schmidt: One of the biggest threats leopards are facing is habitat loss due to us humans needing more and more space. That doesn’t seem to stop in the near future. So what can we actually do for them?

Owen Grobler: That’s a really good question, and it is a very complicated issue. Primarily what we must do is support our National Parks and support privately protected land. It’s a great way to do it because if you go and visit these places, you get to immerse yourself in nature, and you get to see these magnificent animals, but at the same time, you are supporting the people that are protecting these areas. As long as there’s a value in that wildlife, people are incentivised to protect these areas. I think the world is shifting towards eco-tourism, and there’s a big market for it.

Another important thing is to create wildlife corridors from one protected area to another to support genetic diversity. As soon as you enclose environments, then obviously, genetically, there can be complications. I think there is still work that can be done, we can still ensure the safe movement of these animals from one area to another, but that would then need the buy-in of people to at least broaden the private or protected areas so that animals can move from one to another. I think that’s the only way I can foresee animals having a chance in this environment, the creation of corridors as well as ensuring that there isn’t any more erosion into protected land that we have left.

leopard conservation south africa

Daytime sightings of leopards in the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate are incredibly rare and therefore even more special

Marie Schmidt: The town of Hoedspruit seems to grow a lot currently, with new building sites popping up everywhere. How do you think this will affect the leopards?

Owen Grobler: There’s a number of things that have contributed to Hoedspruit mushrooming as it is. During Covid, people realised that they could work from home, so I think that we did get a good portion of people moving here and buying property from the city. With the hospital going up, that’s going to make it more enticing to people, especially to an ageing population to move out here.

One of the landowners of the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate cleared a portion of his land to put up storage units for people to be able to rent. That western section and just outside of it is where one of the leopardesses used to move. It’s clear that habitat loss has impacted her. That area is no longer there to teach cubs. Habitat destruction means that leopards will disappear. Without a prey base, you are not going to have your predators, and I think that’s why it is so important for us to do whatever we can to hang on to the protected land that we have left and support National Parks that support protected land. Also, to support outfits like Panthera or the Cape Leopard Trust - these are organisations that are doing spectacular work, and I think if people just do a bit of research and find a conservation outfit that resonates with them, go and support them, keep them afloat. They are educating people, they are doing a lot of great work on the ground, and I think that’s a really, really vital part if we can combine our support for the conservation outfits as well as supporting protected areas. Only then are we giving these animals a future.

Owen Grobler Leopard Conservation Photographer

Wildlife Photographer Owen Grobler

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