strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Posts Tagged ‘leopards’

Killing Buddy MacKay

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 4, 2016

Leopard  in Nagarahole (Photo: K Subbaiah, WCS India Program)

Leopard in Nagarahole (Photo: K Subbaiah, WCS India Program)

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.

It is difficult, sometimes dangerous work. The leopards face the usual pathological hatred human dole out to big, dangerous predators almost everywhere, only more so.  Their lives often end by poisoning, trapping, or shooting at the hands of angry livestock ranchers.  Some of that animosity also rubs off on the people who study leopards.

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

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Bright Lights, Big Predators

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 19, 2015

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(Illustration: Andrew Holder, by permission)

My latest for The New York Times:

IT was tea break one afternoon this past May, in a business park in Mumbai, one of the world’s most crowded cities. The neighborhood was chockablock with new 35-story skyscrapers adorned with Greek temples on top. On the seventh-floor deck of one building, 20-something techies took turns playing foosball and studying the wooded hillside in back through a brass ship captain’s spyglass.

They were looking at a leopard, also on tea break, up a favorite tree where it goes to loaf many afternoons around 4:30. That is, it was a wild leopard living unfenced and apparently well fed in the middle of the city, on a dwindling forest patch roughly the size of Central Park between 59th and 71st Streets. When I hiked the hillside the next day, I found a massive slum just on the other side, heavy construction equipment nibbling at the far end, and a developer’s private helipad up top. And yet the leopard seemed to have mastered the art of avoiding people, going out by night to pick off dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, rats and other camp followers of human civilization.

Welcome to the future of urban living. Predators are turning up in cities everywhere, and living among us mostly without incident. Big, scary predators, at that. Wolves now live next door to Rome’s main airport, and around Hadrian’s Villa, just outside the city. A mountain lion roams the Hollywood Hills and has his own Facebook page. Coyotes have turned all of Chicago into their territory. Great white sharks, attracted by …

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Leopard Stalks Steenbok at Kruger

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 19, 2015

Turn off the sound on this one.  Too much microphone wind.  Or just don’t watch if you are a Friend of Bambi.

Posted in Food & Drink, Kill or Be Killed, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

In the Field (and City) with Leopards

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 10, 2015

Lit by a camera-trap flash and the glow of urban Mumbai, a leopard prowls the edge of India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. (Photo: Steve Winter)

Lit by a camera-trap flash and the glow of urban Mumbai, a leopard prowls the edge of India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. (Photo: Steve Winter)

My article on leopards appears in the December issue of National Geographic magazine, and a slightly reformatted version appears today online. I did the reporting in southern Africa, and India.  Here’s the lead:

We were sitting in the dark, waiting for the leopards beside a trail on the edge of India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, 40 square miles of green life in the middle of the sprawling gray metropolis of Mumbai. A line of tall apartment buildings stood just opposite, crowding the park border. It was 10 p.m., and through the open windows came the sounds of dishes being cleaned and children being put to bed. Religious music floated up from a temple in the distance. Teenage laughter, a motorcycle revving. The hum and clatter of 21 million people, like a great machine. Somewhere in the brush around us, the leopards were listening too, waiting for the noise to die down. Watching.

About 35 leopards live in and around this park. That’s an average of less than two square miles of habitat apiece, for animals that can easily range ten miles in a day. These leopards also live surrounded by some of the world’s most crowded urban neighborhoods, housing 52,000 people or more per square mile. (That’s nearly twice the population density of New York City.) And yet the leopards thrive. Part of their diet comes from spotted deer and other wild prey within the park. But many of the leopards also work the unfenced border between nature and civilization. While the city sleeps, they slip through the streets and alleys below, where they pick off dogs, cats, pigs, rats, chickens, and goats, the camp followers of human civilization. They eat people too, though rarely.

They are fearful of people, and with good reason. Humans make

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In South Africa, Coffee with Friends

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2014

And a very vervet monkey morning to you.

And a very vervet monkey morning to you.

I’m in the Durban area at the moment, working on a story about leopards.  These artful dodgers strolled into my room this morning to steal the sugar packets.

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On The Brink of a World Minus the Tooth & Claw

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 14, 2014

(Photo:Christian Sperka/Panthera)

(Photo:Christian Sperka/Panthera)

Everybody knows the haunting tune and those words: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.” The song is a reminder of the power of wilderness and of the awe it can make us feel even across oceans and at the other end of the earth. What West Africa’s lions are facing today, though, is the Big Sleep—that is, extinction.

Researchers who spent six years scouring protected areas in the 11 West African nations where lions were once at home found evidence of fewer than 250 surviving adult lions. Think of it this way: That’s smaller than the high school student body in my small town in New England, distributed across an area longer than the distance from Portland, Maine, to Jacksonville, Fla.

It’s not just West Africa: Lion populations are in dramatic decline across the continent. In Kenya, where they are the symbol of national strength and an essential factor in the tourist economy, biologists have predicted that lions will disappear from the wild within just 15 years. Continent-wide, the rapidly dwindling population is down to about 35,000 lions in 67 isolated pockets.

Until the new study, published in the journal PLOS One, scientists had paid hardly any attention to West Africa’s distinctly different lions, which are more closely related to a remnant subspecies in India than to lions in eastern and southern Africa. They began the research for the new study in 2006, following pug marks through the forest, monitoring camera traps, and occasionally broadcasting a lion’s roar and listening for a response, almost always in vain. If it was a jungle out there, it was a largely empty one.

The study concludes that West Africa’s lions are in a “catastrophic collapse,” hanging on in just five nations. The news is even worse than that sounds: Almost 90 percent of the lions live in a single trans-frontier population on the shared borders of Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso, making them highly vulnerable to political upheaval, poaching, or an outbreak of disease. The other surviving lions are in Nigeria and Senegal. In some of these countries, parks exist on paper only, without staff or budget.

The discouraging news about lions came in the same week as another study showing a dramatic decline in almost all of the Read the rest of this entry »

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