What would you do if you came face-to-face with a 175 pound, agitated leopard? If you’re conservation power-couple Marlice and Rudie van Vuuren, you’ve been on the receiving end of such a scenario about 112 times.
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As conservationists and National Geographic Big Cat Initiative grantees, the van Vuurens are on the frontlines of human-wildlife conflict and have translocated more than a hundred big cats in less than a decade in order to mitigate that conflict. Watch the video to see how one epic leopard translocation unfolds.
National Geographic also sat down with the couple at their wildlife sanctuary to talk about their work.
National Geographic: How did you get started in conservation work?
Marlice: When we started N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary ten years ago, we got in cheetahs and leopards, and we realized we could not only take animals in, we had to deal with the source of the problem. Farmers normally would catch cheetahs and leopards with capture cages the minute they start losing livestock to the carnivores.
National Geographic: How does your Rapid Response Unit get involved?
Rudie: The first prize for us is to release that animal on the spot, if we can convince the farmer that this is not really a problem animal and that it’s an opportunistic livestock raider. Second prize for us would be if the farmer agrees that we collar and release the animal there and then. The collar has a satellite unit and we can see exactly where the animal is. We share that with the farmer and he often shares that with his neighbors. He starts seeing how these animals move, we inform him when we see a kill pattern on the downloads, and ask him to go and look at what is the prey that that animal caught, is it natural prey or is it livestock? This is how we engage with the farmers and how we work with them. Farmers are some of the best conservationists in this country. One of our last resorts is to translocate that animal to a protected area.
National Geographic: Why is there such high likelihood of having big cats on farmland in Namibia?
Rudie: Cheetahs and leopards in Namibia occur mostly outside of protected areas, and that is mostly commercial farmland, so the chances of conflict are very high. When we talk about human-wildlife conflict we always look at the wildlife side of things, but there’s a human component.
Marlice: Remember, we are both Namibian. We have our own cattle here, our own sheep, and our own goats. We practice what we preach. We come there as a farmer and somebody that just wants to help. We don’t want to tell you what you’re doing wrong, we come with options.
National Geographic: Why should someone across the world somewhere—who may never see a leopard in the wild—care about this?
Rudie: If we lose these carnivores, it will have severe effects to the ecosystem. If carnivores disappear from our ecosystem, baboon numbers will go through the roof. If baboon numbers go through the roof, disease transmission between baboons and humans can increase and we could have another disease that could influence the whole world, and people will trace it back to Africa because leopards disappeared. I don’t think people realize what the impact is if we lose a species. Everybody is at the disadvantage, not only the people that love them.
For more on big cats, tune in to Big Cat Week, premiering Monday, Feb. 20, at 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD and learn more about the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, a global initiative that supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild.
Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at http://natgeo.org/grants.
SENIOR PRODUCER: Sarah Joseph
PRODUCER/EDITOR: Nora Rappaport
Rescuing a Fierce Leopard: See What It Takes | Expedition Raw