• A MOU was signed between the PHASA Conservation and Empowerment Fund, Rhino Direct and Singatha Conservation Research Fund.

Below is the background and an introduction to the role-players.

~By Mariska Nel & Leanne Ray
Singatha Conservation Research Fund (SCRF) was born out of the recognition of the difficulties post-graduate students face in conducting field research, the challenges landowners have in obtaining scientific information relevant to their specific needs, and an opportunity to involve corporate sponsors in transparent, funding-worthy projects. We strive to forge connections to promote conservation research, tertiary education, and community involvement.

SCRF’s current endeavours include research projects running in the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve and Northern Limpopo where we assist with monitoring of wildlife through camera trapping; and training students in using different field data collection techniques.  We are also actively involved in WESSA’s Save the Magaliesberg Species initiative, organizing and hosting snare-removal events in collaboration with landowners and volunteers. SCRF welcomes collaborations, firmly believing that only when working together can we make a meaningful and lasting contribution to nature conservation. Hence we are delighted in our new found relationship with PHASA and Rhino Connect to conduct leopard monitoring and contribute to the scientific knowledge base needed to manage these illusive creatures.

The SCRF team consist of members with experience in the industry. Mariska Nel, with background in project management, working with landowners, students, academic institutions and public sponsorship initiatives will be at the steering point of project relations during the monitoring programme. She is currently completing her MTech degree in Nature Conservation, part- time lecturing at Tshwane University of Technology and Co- Director of Rhino Connect.

Leanne Ray will be the running point on the implementation of the monitoring programme. Leanne’s resume includes a BSc. Honours in Zoology from the University of Pretoria and an MTech in Nature Conservation from Tshwane University of Technology. She is presently a PhD candidate at TUT, with her thesis focussing on leopard population demographics. Leanne has conducted research on wildlife management strategies, camera trapping, and predator relocations, and, being a part-time lecturer at TUT, has experience in mentoring post-graduate students.

Marié de Vos completed her MSc. in Zoology at the University of Pretoria and is presently working in biomonitoring. She will be assisting with scientific report writing and content creation for the leopard monitoring project.

Mart-Mari Scholtz has a Btech in Nature Conservation from TUT, where she is also a part-time lecturer. Mart will be providing administrative support for the monitoring project.

Rhino Connect is a registered Non-Profit Company that hosts numerous projects in South Africa that has a real time conservation benefit. Their role during this project is to assist with logistical and legal support as well as governance of finances for financial transparency. The Rhino Connect team, Tersia Jooste, Mariska Nel and Jana Jooste, has a passion for private wildlife ownership in South Africa. The Rhino Connect projects have been able to assist numerous needs such as supplement feed for rhinos in the drought aftermath, milk and supplements for young rhino orphans, outsourced security, security equipment – Seek Thermal, medical emergencies for Veterinarian care – Rhino poaching victims in Limpopo & Mpumalanga, relocating of animals and emergency transport for orphans, Association with IVSA (International Veterinary Students Association) and SYMCO – a Veterinary Student Symposium. These successful initiatives have earned them a reputation that has build strong relationships with landowners, students and international recognized institutions to better the public understanding of private wildlife ownership in South Africa as well as creating opportunities such as project collaborations between SCRF and PHASA. All financial contributions will be governed through Rhino Connect to ensure financial transparency.  Due to the success of the current public programme initiative of Rhino Connect, there are great opportunities assisting with the Citizen Science project for leopard monitoring through public programmes.

The leopard monitoring project uses the scientific protocols recommended by the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), and follows the process required by the relevant governmental and scientific authorities to ensure unbiased, scientifically sound outputs. Camera trapping is frequently used in wildlife research, also in determining carnivore abundance, including leopards. It has been especially effective in counting elusive carnivores and studying their behavior and habitat use. For the Leopard project we use the following method:  Camera traps are placed along; roads, drainage lines, water sources and game trails, where chances are maximised for capturing leopard movement.

20 Camera trap stations with 40 cameras are arranged in a map-defined grid across the property, covering a minimum of 10 000 Ha, this can be one property or adjacent properties making up at least 10 000Ha, and stations are placed at least 2km apart to ensure the areas around a camera is large enough to include the home range of a leopard in the area. Two cameras per station will be mounted on trees or steel droppers, about 45cm above ground, across from each other in attempt to capture both sides of the animal for better identification. Camera trapping occasions will be divided into 24hr cycles, consisting of sampling periods lasting approximately 3 months, the cameras will be rotated every 45 days to cover 10 000Ha. With the data captured from the camera traps, a leopard identity kit is set-up to identify individuals on properties. Once all the data is collected from the various points of capture and corroborated amongst the team, an official report will be compiled and presented to the landowner, explaining and discussing the unique nature of Leopard diversity on the area monitored.

We have successfully set up monitoring projects in Northern Limpopo, Ellisras and the Magaliesberg Biosphere. Continuing from here we aim to monitor and sample on private properties within the 5 Districts of the Limpopo Province, Kwazulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. 

SCRF believes in ‘letting the science do the talking’, in order to provide truly objective findings that are uncorrupted by the opinions and agendas that we as the human species are so prone to follow.

Only about 7% of South-Africa’s land is formally protected, placing enormous responsibility on our country’s private landowners to protect the natural heritage of this uniquely diverse land. The SCRF team is excited to work alongside PHASA, Rhino Connect, private landowners, and communities on the leopard monitoring project. By relying on the various strengths and expertise each party brings to the table and working united towards the goal of conservation we hope to achieve great things with the leopard monitoring project.