When researchers are trying to understand how leopards live, where they go, and what they need to survive, their best hope is still to go into the bush with them, by vehicle and on foot. That hasn’t changed despite the coming of ubiquitous digital camera traps, satellite tracking, and other technologies.
The standard procedure for radio-collaring a leopard is to lure it, with bait, into a box trap and sedate it. The biologist then has less than an hour to work with the animal as it recovers, taking samples, making measurements, and fitting the collar. When it wakes up again, the leopard goes free. The biologist may never see it again in the wild, even when the slow, high-pitched bpp…bpp…bpp picked up from the radio collar via earphones reveals that the leopard is just 50 meters ahead. Leopards are the grand masters of staying hidden in plain sight.
And yet because researchers often work alone, amid hostile neighbors, the bond with that unseen animal can become their best consolation. Their great fear is not that the leopard might turn on them, but that the steady pulse from the collar will suddenly double, meaning an animal has gone motionless for too long, not rolling over in its sleep, not shaking its head. That’s called the “mortality signal.”
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of sad stories from leopard researchers about their study animals, but none stuck harder, for me, than the lynching of Buddy MacKay. I heard it one night last year, sitting on the verandah of a forest bungalow, drinking whiskey, in the