What could a collared Tyger teach us about caracals in Table Mountain?

By Laurel Serieys, PhD

As a biologist leading the Urban Caracal Project, the project has offered me a number of stand-out rewarding moments– and quite a number of fortuitous surprises too.  The story of Tyger is just one of those...

Tyger is a young male caracal, probably close to 2 years old, that was the 18h caracal for the Urban Caracal Project, and the 16th that we radio-collared. He's quite an interesting cat! He was hit by a car in the northern suburbs of Cape Town late last year. One of his legs was broken, but it seemed that if the leg could heal, he would survive. The Cape of Good Hope SPCA worked to rehabilitated him. He had surgery to fix the broken leg and was carefully monitored and cared for.   

Within a couple months time Tyger was ready to be released. With the help of a SANParks colleague and permission granted by the SPCA, on December 23, 2015, we radio-collared Tyger. He was then released into the Tygerberg Reserve near the suburbs where he was initially found hit by a car. I personally expected Tyger to remain in, or nearby, the reserve until his radio-collar ran out of battery power.  

Because of this prediction, I'd been worried that using our limited resources to collect data on him could be a gamble...would I trust the data?  Here would be a caracal that had a broken leg that was repaired in captivity– a very stressful environment for a wild animal. If Tyger just hung around the reserve, would that be because his leg wasn't completely healed, or would it reflect his natural behavior?  I felt I wouldn't ever know for sure, but I did happen to have a radio-collar that had only half-battery after it was recovered from the body of another caracal, Berg Wind, that died of disease.  So if the data were questionable, I didn't feel this use of Berg's half-battery collar would be too big a loss. 

Tyger's movements for the first 10 days he was radio-collared. GPS points collected by the collar are in blue.

But what a surprise Tyger has proven to be!  After only 10 days of laying low in the urban reserve (map above), Tyger was ready to take off! 

On January 3, Tyger found a little corridor out of Tygerberg he used to begin is journey. GPS points collected by the collar are in blue.

Tyger found a narrow strip of relatively connected habitat and used the corridor to leave the reserve (map above).

 From January 4 through the 20th, Tyger made an epic journey north spanning nearly 60km! He was on a mission!  GPS points collected by the collar are in blue.

From January 4 through the 20th, Tyger made an epic journey north spanning nearly 60km! He was on a mission! GPS points collected by the collar are in blue.

And then straight north he went all the way to Malmesbury! He made a 55 kilometer trek, suggesting that he was in dispersal mode, looking for an unoccupied territory to call his own.   

Dispersal behavior of young males and Tyger as a case-study

Despite all the challenges Tyger was up against, he turned out to be just the case study I was looking for. When young male wild cats reach approximately 2 years in age, they "disperse" (move away from the area where they were born), sometimes even hundreds of kilometers, depending on the species. This behavior is a natural deterrent to inbreeding in populations. The females of most species tend to stay closer to where they were born, so if the males move long distances, both emigrating out of and immigrating into populations, genetic variation in populations can be maintained and inbreeding avoided. 

In the Cape Peninsula, where the majority of our caracals are radio-collared, we presume the area is absolutely isolated by urbanization. So far, we have not seen any individuals leave the Peninsula. And so, in this landscape isolated by a sea of water and dense urban development, how is effective dispersal to occur so that inbreeding is avoided?  Fortuitously, at around the same time that Tyger made his long-distance trek, another young male that we radio-collared within the Cape Peninsula exhibited similar behavior. But the distance from south to north for the entirety of Table Mountain National Park is roughly 50 kilometers. Azure, caracal # 16, showed us there's not much of anywhere to go. We recently highlighted these observations on one of our Facebook infographics.  

A portion of the infographic we recently published highlighting the dispersal behaviors of Tyger and Azure.

So what happened to Tyger and Azure after their journeys?

Tyger's story could be one of success. He seems to have settled down in the Malmesbury area where there are agricultural and reserve open spaces that likely provide great hunting ground for him.  It is unfortunate that his collar ran out of battery before we established how he would settle in, but the last of his movements spanning approximately 6 weeks suggest he was exploring a potential territory of his own. 

Tyger's movements the last three weeks he was radio-collared. He is displaying behavior suggestive that he found an area to establish a territory. 

Tyger's new "home range" is close to West Coast National Park, and while we wondered if he would make it all the way there, he seems to be settling near Malmesbury. 

Where Tyger is settling is very near to West Coast National Park, and while we watched Tyger's movements with bated breath wondering if he would journey all the way to the National Park, he doesn't need to go that far. These cats are resilient and adaptable do remarkably well even in landscapes fragmented by agriculture and urbanization. 

Azure's fate, on the other hand, is less certain. During his dispersal effort, he moved as far north as he could- all the way to Signal Hill. He ping-ponged around Signal Hill for about a week before turning around and heading back towards where he started– Silvermine/Tokai area.  Given that he was caught in that area, I was wondering if he would next go south to explore potential territories in South Peninsula. But he hasn't. He continues to hang around Tokai, occasionally heading towards Constantia, but his options are limited. Unfortunately, his collar will soon run out of battery, but the data we've collected from him has been fascinating and teaches us a lot about frustrated dispersal efforts for Cape Peninsula caracals. 

So what can we do with this knowledge?

At many of the talks I've given, a lot of people will raise the point that if caracals in the Cape Peninsula are absolutely isolated- they must be doomed and what's the point of trying to protect them?  I often point out that it is important to think both smaller and bigger picture. First, caracals are showing us that they are extremely resilient animals, but they live in an environment where increasing fragmentation is occurring.  So, looking at a finer-scale view within the Peninsula, I suggest it is important to try to retain what habitat connectivity remains- not just for caracals, but for the many other species that are making it in the urbanizing landscape.

But panning out to the bigger picture– what about outside of the Peninsula?  Urbanization is the principle threat to global biodiversity conservation. How can we use the teachings of Tyger and Azure to ensure we protect species beyond the Peninsula? Planning ahead is the answer. Urbanization and habitat loss and modification is going to continue, and is is proceeding at a very rapid pace globally. Looking to the future, it is important that if we want to try to protect biodiversity in the changing landscape, we protect areas that animals can move through to maintain functional habitat connectivity in fragmented landscapes.

Another reward from Tyger

Tyger's collar reached the end of it's battery life in mid-March, and so I was able to send a signal remotely, through a web interface, to the radio-collar to fall off. But as researchers, we do all we can to recover the radio-collars for several reasons. The "drop-off" activation through the website has proven effective on other caracal studies in South Africa, but it doesn't always work. We don't want the caracals stuck with radio-collars for the entirety of their lives, so we attempt to recover the collars to ensure it has indeed fallen off of the animal. The Urban Caracal Project field team followed up to recover the collar in the areas where Tyger's radio-collar collected data.  But with no luck, and after days and days of driving around trying to hone in on a radio-signal that should be emitted if the collar indeed has fallen off!  And so, I thought that perhaps more effective would be to try to schedule a flight over the area to listen for the collar from above. We frequently try to get to high places when listening for the collars so we get more reach, and by flying you get pretty high!

While the drama of recovering Tyger's collar has been unfolding, I of course happen to be in the United States moving the genetics component of the project forward. So I felt impotent to help with locating Tyger's radio-collar, and decided to put a call out to our Facebook community to ask for help. I posted a plea on Facebook after dinner one Thursday and went to bed holding thumbs something would come through. With the time difference, the post would've gone up in the middle of the night Cape Town time. I happened to wake up earlier than I wanted the next morning– around 5am. But what a surprise awaited me! I checked in with my team and to my surprise, the project field team manager, Joleen, was jumping on a plane in that very moment!!!!  What quick response from the community! I've told this story to all of my colleagues in the U.S. and everyone is amazed (and so jealous)!  Daily, with these cats, I find myself counting my blessings to be doing the work in Cape Town where there is such a supportive community that has helped this project, surviving on a shoestring budget, thrive.

Our gracious pilot and plane above, and Joleen, Project Field Team manager below, on the hunt for Tyger's collar.

So what a big thanks we want to extend to The Morningstar Aviation Club and airfield, to  Ross Leighton for helping to organize and for sponsoring the fuel, and to Stephan Moser for donating an hour and a half of his time to fly!  We weren't able to find the radio-collar, but we did all we could. We believe the collar fell off of Tyger and has gotten buried in sand where the signal is just too hard to hear. The good news is that if it were still on him, we would have most likely hear the signal after weeks of driving around and with the flight. 

So while we are giving thanks, I'd like to also extend to Matthew McCarthy, who recently had a birthday (Happy Birthday!).  And instead of gifts, he asked his friends to donate funds to buy the project a new GPS unit that we desperately needed!   Thank you thank you thank you to Matthew and his friends!

But as always, we still have a list! Our interns have settled in a new house in Glencairn and so we have an updated wish list for the project. If anyone has any of the following they'd be willing to part with, we'd be so grateful! Give us a call at 079-837-8814 or email caracal@capeleopard.org.za

House needs:
* A stove for the house- right now the kitchen is set up for electric stove, but used to have a gas line if a gas stove is available

* A refrigerator (our team is growing!)

* A dining room table

* Warm blankets and duvet covers for the coming winter

* Drawers for the bedrooms

And general project needs:
* Small digital camera for investigating caracal diet (simple and old will do!)

* Protective case for GPS units and small digital camera

* SD card reader for our field computer that's old and finicky

* External hard drives for data storage

So thanks as always from the Urban Caracal Project Team. You guys are the fuel that keep us running! http://www.urbancaracal.org/support/

 

A letter to project supporters

Dear all,

I hope you are well.  The Urban Caracal Project is having great success- we recently captured and radio-collared our first two Cape of Good Hope caracals within a week of opening traps!  

The project has expanded even more than we could've predicted. We have collared more caracals than any other scientific study. Our ability to generate quality information creates more opportunity to translate our work into conservation action. In fact, the city of Cape Town is already using it to prioritize land buy-ups.

This success, however has stretched the project’s budget, especially with respect to the administrative costs of the satellite collars. Current stakeholders are no longer able to provide all of the support that the project needs. As a result, the project faces an uncertain future and, possibly, a premature end. 

As you have been the greatest supporters of the project, I am asking if you would be willing to extend your amazing generosity into the project’s exciting second year?

Specifically, we need to raise money to cover three types of expenses. First, we need to provide housing for our team of dedicated volunteer research assistants (R12/000 per month). Second, we need to pay the service fee for acquiring data from our satellite collars (R20,000/collar for 15 collars). Finally, we need to pay to refurbish satellite collars so that we can keep generating data from Cape Point (R10,000/collar for 7 collars).

Would you be willing to help support us? Although we are considering other fundraising approaches, most are too slow and offer small returns relative to the resources that go into them. We depend on private donors such as yourselves to keep the project going. 

Thank you for your consideration and any ideas you may have, and perhaps forwarding our information along to any friends you think can help. And please enjoy the photo of our newest cat, Protea. She's a real beauty that sticks to the beaches of Cape Point.

Kind regards and deep appreciation for your ongoing support,

Laurel

  • Cape Leopard Trust
  • FNB, Tokai
  • Branch code: 20 04 09
  • Account number: 6220 503 0505
  • SWIFT FIRNZAJJ 

Could the future of the Urban Caracal Project rest on finding a 2-4 bedroom house? (Laurel's blog)

By Laurel Serieys, PhD

There are many stories that I’ve been wanting share through this blog. I’ve wanted to describe how intense the experience of capturing my first caracal, Laduma, was even after I'd captured hundreds of carnivores in Los Angeles where I'd worked before. Or about the time that I walked in on Laduma hunting grysbok after he moved into the Silvermine dam area post-fire. Or perhaps some of our predictions of what we may learn from Cape Point caracals as we prepare to begin working in that area.

But the reality is, this project is daily threatened because resources are stretched too thin. And so, many ideas sit in my head, experiences unshared. I can be a fiercely private person, and am the kind of person that rarely volunteers to share my hardships faced. But, this project has presented me with so many unexpected stumbling blocks, and increasingly, these largely logistical, stumbling blocks threaten the future of the project. So I think it is now time to share just a few of the struggles I’ve faced to keep this project going, because few looking in from the outside can imagine the difficulty that running a project of this nature is, particularly if you are largely doing it alone. In sharing in a way I wouldn't normally share, I am also extending yet another request for desperately-needed help.

Getting to South Africa with a dream of urban caracals

I have had a lifelong dream to do on-the-ground wild cat research that contributes to conservation action. I led a successful bobcat (a lynx-like cat similar to caracals) project for my PhD, and collaborated on a successful puma (a larger wild cat in the Americas) study in Los Angeles, California, USA. As a conservation biology graduate student, I had the rare opportunity to see my bobcat data used to contribute to legislative action restricting consumer availability of some of the most toxic rat poisons on the market in California – in a State with nearly 40 million people! This is just the kind of difference I was hoping to make.

I knew that my next project would be in a foreign country– and that by taking my work and passion abroad, I would step into something novel and important. Most urban wildlife research is conducted in the United States, leaving me to ask – how much can we generalize the findings of those studies, primarily conducted in affluent California, to areas in other parts of the world that have more important social struggles and omnipresent habitat destruction? 

So as I approached the finish of my PhD, I got to work manifesting the international life I’d imagined. My husband would only leave Los Angeles for Cape Town, so I set my sights on the city. I was faced with creating a job for myself in a specific city – in a country I’d never even visited! Imagine the challenge that presented!  Multiple colleagues in the U.S. warned me I was committing career suicide if I were to take this sort of life gamble – to move abroad to uncertainty, take on such an immense challenge to start a project from scratch, when, at this stage of my career, I should be sitting in an office analyzing data and writing publications. But I believe in living life boldly and to the fullest, to meet challenges head-on, and to not let fear of the unknown conquer dreams. 

In May 2013, I traveled to South Africa, where during a single trip to the Cape Peninsula, I envisioned a project that would examine the effects of urbanization on understudied wild caracals that were seeming to persist in the Peninsula in the face of rapid urbanization and increasing isolation. I met with the Cape Leopard Trust and Drs. Justin O’Riain and Jacqueline Bishop, professors at University of Cape Town. I had no idea that within a year’s time, this network of people would provide a critical foundation to launch the project, and that they would become the greatest advocates of the project to keep it moving forward through many struggles.  

The project launching was conditional on my ability to find funding to support myself, and I didn’t get the grants I applied for in 2013. But I was not deterred – I applied for funding the following year as I also worked to finish my PhD. In the meantime, enthusiastic for the project, Cape Leopard Trust offered to support me for 6 months. We were optimistic I would get additional funding once I arrived in South Africa. I booked a flight for September 2014, packed my bags, found a home for my two beloved cats, got visas in place, and applied for permits. I came to the promise of a full-time graduate student, two vehicles, and 4 radio-collars. With the added logistical support, I felt that launching and managing the project would be feasible. My husband made arrangements to finish out the year at his job and join me in January 2015.

My dream of doing something new brought me to Cape Town, South Africa to study another urban wild cat.  Photo credit Riaan Vermeulen

I made it but to challenges immediately revealed

Upon arrival in Cape Town, I immediately recognized I was up against some important logistical challenges. In the U.S., trapping cages, which would be the most fundamental of field equipment I needed, are easy to buy pre-built. But in South Africa, I was to have to build my own! So in a completely foreign place, dislodged from everything I knew, never having seen a caracal, and trying to simultaneously sort life details (i.e., visa complications, additional permitting, medical aid, etc.), I was now confronted with the task to build the most basic of my field equipment. With Cape Leopard Trust's help, I was able to locate someone to help with the welding and construction that would be required, and together we traveled around industrial Cape Town for days…to find even the most basic of materials was an epic challenge! But we did it– and over the course of about a month, we built 15 cages. In the meantime, I learned I'd received those grants I'd applied for, and had funding support through December 2016. 

The project launches, but with great struggle and sacrifice

I finally had all in place by mid-November to get the fieldwork started. With the help of the graduate student, a SAN Parks employee, and a visiting colleague from the U.S., we spent countless hours exploring Front Table and setting traps. Within 10 days we'd caught our first cat, Laduma! The ease of the first capture gave my local assistants the expectation that the project would be easy, and success always so quick. But I warned– until we catch a few more cats, keep expectations low.

And I was right– it took nearly a month before we captured our second cat Savannah, who was hit by a car within 3 weeks of capture. It was another 4 months until my 3rd capture. During that interval of time, the difficulty of the work with such little pay-off put into perspective that the graduate student’s project would not work on the timescale needed. She changed projects in January, leaving us without a second vehicle or the critical field assistance required to keep the project going.

Eight years of trapping experience in Los Angeles taught me that the loss of the full-time student would be a profound setback. Traps must be checked a minimum of 4 times/daily. And because it can take months before a cat walks by a trap, traps must be kept open 24/7 to take advantage of that brief second to lure a cat into the trap that has been so patiently monitored for weeks. My patience, optimism, and physical endurance would be tested daily while, alone, I continued checking traps, scouting new locations, and setting new traps. And this amidst having to do all other important tasks to keep the project going – grant and report writing, administrative paperwork, the social media and website, and lab work to get the genetics portion of the project off the ground, to name a few. And to keep my career unfolding, I was also beholden to continuing my bobcat work– more data analysis and getting papers published, as it is key to demonstrating a strong professional track record. In my best effort to keep on top of these tasks, I (still) work 16-hour days that often start around 4 AM so I can do computer work before going to the field.

Simultaneously, I was also confronted with the collapse of my marriage. My husband no longer wanted to leave Los Angeles to take this gamble with me. In January, I went back to LA to try to resuscitate my 5-year marriage to discover that divorce was unquestionable. When I returned to South Africa In February, I felt defeated with the knowledge that I’d made this journey thinking I was to be joined by the person most important in my life, and choosing this location for him! But now I’d lost my “home,” and suddenly South Africa was all I had– a place completely foreign to me where I had very few friends because of the project demands zapping any time for socializing. And to be back in a place without a support group where I was to remotely move through the divorce process felt overwhelming. 

I also returned to South Africa to discover equipment that I’d left in the field (remote cameras and a closed trap) were stolen, including precious trapping equipment given to me by a beloved boyfriend that died as a result of his own wild cat research in 2007.  The loss of that precious equipment left me feeling even more distant from important relationships in my life.

The next challenge hit hard too. In March, the massive fires broke out in the Peninsula. A quarter of my study area was on fire, and I didn’t know how the project would be affected. How would the fires affect the population of caracals I was already having immense difficulty sampling?! To that point, I was suffering so much loss– my central relationship, friends, family, my pets, critical project help, equipment, and the study area!  And now, new research restrictions were put in place to "protect" the burn area. Suddenly, more paperwork and meetings were necessary to enable moving the work into the burn area to collect valuable data on how caracals were responding post-fire, marking a downhill progression to increasing demands for meeting after meeting, report after report. 

But I still kept going without any regrets. For nearly two months I kept up with the fieldwork with assistance only one-two days per week. I hiked approximately 20 km per day, up and down the mountains, ruminating with all the time alone how my passion for my work was leading to so much loss in my life, and whether my colleagues were right– that I was committing career suicide and would soon add my career to the list of losses. I arrived home daily from the field physically and emotionally exhausted, increasingly unsure that the project would be successful. And I still had all that computer work to do! But on top of it all, somehow I'd managed to publish two bobcat papers in prestigious scientific journals! I am a fighter in this life – I push myself hard to do the things I believe can make a difference. I was optimistic that I'd hit "rockbottom" by that point, and that positive change was just around the corner. 

In March, I was unexpectedly blessed to find a full-time assistant– a young volunteer from the U.S., who believed in the work too. He was dedicated, and was a sudden lifeline the project. But we had only one vehicle generously provided by Cape Leopard Trust, meaning that I still was not to get much time off because in the case of a caracal capture, I had to be able to get to the capture site even on my days off because I am singularly trained to manage the captures. So in effect, I would have to be with him “just in case,” still giving me no time off or much needed rest, or added time in front of the computer. I also had no stable housing to offer him, discovering what has become one of the biggest logistical challenges I’ve faced on this project – finding stable, affordable housing!

But I wasn't yet at rockbottom! In April our 5th cat captured for the study died soon after capture of suspected rat poison exposure (samples are being tested now). So many months of work to have only to that point, movement data largely collected on 1 cat (Laduma)! I was working 7 days a week, trying to figure out strategy to boost my capture numbers, meanwhile captured animals quickly dying because of the challenges they face living in the urban environment.

My knowledge of field work, and the biology of wild cats, was being tested to the max. I was trying all I knew, and pushing myself harder and harder...but it paid off. By May 5th, I’d captured 9 cats and deployed all of my radio-collars...to meet my next challenge– scrape together funds to buy more collars (R40,000/each).  

In May I travelled again back to the US– my second round-trip in less than a year! I attended a conference in Chicago and then returned to Los Angeles to deal with more logistical issues surrounding my divorce and to move the caracal genetics project forward. The week before I left though, a series of project mishaps happened, exemplary of the general trend of the project– another field assistant quit the project after less than 2 weeks– the work was just too much and too hard. My single vehicle was totaled in a collision, and so while to that point I was desperate for two vehicles, suddenly I had none, and Cape Leopard Trust was left with the burden to repair the vehicle in my absence! And my work computer broke in the field, impeding my ability to efficiently complete critical field tasks.

I was beaten down physically and emotionally, questioning more than ever the project future as I boarded the plane to the U.S. At the conference I attended, based on my presentation, I was offered a job with a prestigious researcher and someone I’ve long admired and have wanted to work with. The gig was sweet– full funding using data collected on urban coyotes to churn out publications and the opportunity to supervise graduate students. The job is exactly what a postdoc should be doing to be most successful in their career. I was strongly advised by colleagues to take the job immediately and leave South Africa. But yet optimistic in the potential success of the Urban Caracal Project, and in believing wholeheartedly in the mission and conservation potential, without hesitation I turned the job down. 

I returned to South Africa in June to learn that my assistant was robbed several times while I was gone because he was living in housing in a dangerous area. He lost personal items, and project equipment was again stolen. To make matters worse, I hadn’t been feeling well for about a month. I’d attributed my physical decline to being overworked and overstressed. But it was getting bad…I’d spontaneously start shaking and was having frequent heart palpitations. I was losing sensation in my hands and arms and experiencing profound joint pain. I was so fatigued and having constant, worsening rashes, migraine headaches, and intense vertigo. I was increasingly losing my memory and ability to organize my thoughts, as well as stay focused on work. My mind was clouding over, decreasing my ability to recognize that something was very wrong.

Not all of these physical symptoms were foreign to me though…when I was 23 I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had surgery and radiation treatment to remove my thyroid, leaving me 100% dependent on hormone replacement medication. I was also diagnosed with lupus when I was 26, and the combination of thyroid and autoimmune disease leave me in a tenuous health balance, particularly when I am stressed. Unfortunately, the medications I require to treat both diseases are unavailable in South Africa, and so I’ve had to bring “stocks” of medication to South Africa. But the unpredictable weather in Cape Town, and the length of time I had to store the medication, led my thyroid medication to go bad. Unknowingly, I was suffering thyroid hormone withdrawal for months, causing significant health issues before I realized the problem. I was able to get new medication within a month, but meanwhile my physical symptoms worsening. Thyroid hormones take nearly two months to achieve stable blood levels, and so I knew I wouldn’t feel better immediately upon getting new medications. I was to be patient, and try to keep pushing ahead on the project despite it all, and am doing so as I continue to recover. 

Despite the illness, however, the project moved forward. I captured 4 more cats, reaching a total of 13 cats captured, including a pregnant female. I conducted preliminary data analysis to find fascinating results.  I gave 3 talks, attended innumerable meetings, have managed to keep the website and Facebook trucking, along with many more little things. 

But I was also, during this time, confronted with even more loss…in July, Jasper, our 8th cat, was hit by a car, and so we lost our yet another study animal and in the process, one of our radio-collars destroyed, costing us R40,000. Next, Oryx and West’s collars stopped working, and I was forced to prematurely remove the collars. And while out in the field trying to remove the radio-collars, I discovered that critical tracking equipment, lent secondhand and piecemeal from various entities, wasn’t working properly, exponentiating the amount of work required to drop the radio-collars remotely.

I'm still here, but I need help! 

And yet, somehow, I am still here pushing as hard as I can because I believe in the project! But the price of this decision is increasing emotional and physical sacrifice. As my project increases in success, it feels as though there is increasing bureaucratic resistance, manifest in particular by demands for innumerable meetings! In August alone I had more than 20 meetings to discuss my project with various entities, and how to keep it moving forward. I should be getting field and lab work done and writing grants and papers. Not traveling all over town to convince people of the merit of what should speak for itself– the project is already more successful that anyone dreamt it would be.

The workload is far too much for one person. I need more help! I have the strong and invaluable support of Cape Leopard Trust and University of Cape Town, without which, this project would not be. But they themselves have many other projects they are responsible for, and with increasing Urban Caracal Project success, they have also been surprised by the challenges we have met. And so, we work together to move forward the best way we can, but for a project of this scale, we need help! And what is most frustrating, the most insurmountable of current challenges is one that should be easy enough to overcome! I have continued to struggle to find safe, stable, and affordable housing for my interns that travel far on their own dime to work full time on the project without stipends. Without housing, I cannot recruit more interns, and now, am struggling to support the ones I have.

The consequence of little challenges like that is that as the project demands increase because of project success, I am increasingly worn thin with less and less time to attend to important project tasks. And I remain socially isolated– with physical illness stacked on top of increasing work demands, and dealing with my divorce. I must work 90-120 hours/week in an attempt to keep the project going. This leaves little time to branch out and build a much-needed support group. My mother commented that my tolerance of solitude makes all the challenges I’ve faced easier to deal with than perhaps for most other people. But the emotional toll this experience has been taking for over a year is challenging even my ability to cope with the isolation.

I am constantly seeking help– but locally, most want to “help” by participating in the fieldwork, likely lured by the prospect of seeing caracals. But this isn’t the help I really need right now, nor do my SAN Parks permits allow for casual volunteers. I need help dealing with the overwhelming logistics, and in particular, finding housing to support 4 interns rather than just two. I’ve put out calls on the Facebook page multiple times, with little response, likely because people don’t realize that this project has primarily been a one-man show that sits on shaky ground, with the future now possibly resting on my ability to find housing to support more help. I need a centralized location that can house 4 interns at once because we still just have 1 vehicle for the interns. They all need to be able to access it at once.

I often think of how far this project has come despite all the challenges (and those described above aren’t even all of them!). And I am proud of myself. But I also think how far I could come if I just had a little more help, if I’d had 2 vehicles since January, if I had stable housing for interns, and if I had reliable equipment. I am pushing as hard and as far as I can, but now to the point that my health and well-being are threatened. So, I have to take a step back and consider how much further and harder I can push. I will go as far as I can, but everyone has a tipping point.

I believe in the Urban Caracal Project, and the conservation action that can be achieved by studying how urbanization affects wildlife somewhere other than in the U.S. Already, the project has received international attention, with stories published as far away as Los Angeles! A Facebook post featuring the movements of Laduma respective to the March fires was seen by nearly 100,000 people (yes, one hundred thousand)! And we are doing the first rat poison testing in all of South Africa – information surely to have huge impact as we are already learning that local wildlife are being exposed to these ubiquitous toxic chemicals.

And so, I firmly believe the project is worthwhile to push forward with, despite the overwhelming loss I’ve experienced as a result of my decision to take this life gamble. But I need a bit more help so I now reach out and ask…can anyone help the way we really need help? Right now, the project may literally rest on locating housing for interns. To keep going, I need a 2 – 4 bedroom house in Noordhoek, Capri, or even Fish Hoek. And while sponsored housing is ideal, I have been trying to raise funds to support the cost of rent. But this still leaves a critical challenge– I myself cannot do it all (i.e., manage finding housing) and keep the project going simultaneously. Even someone willing to do the legwork to find the housing for us would be invaluable. As of October 21, we are in desperate need of housing to support the two interns we have already, but I also desperately need to bring more people onto the project beyond those two. 

In spite of challenges, there have been many gifts and experiences I know I will cherish for the rest of my life. 

For those who have already endowed the project with invaluable support, housing, and funds, I am oh-so-grateful, and the support from the community, Cape Leopard Trust, and University of Cape Town, overwhelms me daily and is the fundamental fuel now driving this project. In spite of all of the challenges, there have been so many gifts and experiences in working here that I know I will cherish for the rest of my life.

But my hope is that if the community knows about the immense challenges I've faced, and continue to face, and yet have steadfastly remained dedicated to this conservation-based project, perhaps there will be someone who can help just a bit more...please email me at Caracal@capeleopard.org.za if you are one of those generous souls who also believes in this project and thinks you may be able to help us find housing.

 

Gauntlet running caracal can't survive the challenge: Jasper's death

Jasper relaxes in his capture cage at the time of his humane capture in April.

By Laurel Serieys, PhD

On April 17, 2015, we captured a young male, Jasper (aka “TMC08”), in Front Table below the King’s Blockhouse. Based on his tooth wear, size, and weight, we estimated his age to be between 1-2 years, which coincides with the likely age that young caracals attempt to disperse. Dispersal occurs when individuals, often young males, move away from the area they were born to find their own territory, where they are able to procure prey and mates as they establish themselves. As a young male in a rapidly urbanizing area, and in an area absolutely isolated by urbanisation, Jasper's options for where he could disperse would be limited.  Remaining wildlife habitat in the Cape Peninsula, in it's entirety, may be itself be completely isolated by urbanization, and through the study of caracals in the Peninsula, we are investigating whether any wildlife corridors that bridge the Peninsula to more connected habitat outside of Cape Town exist. However, our prediction is grim– there may little-to-no area suitable for wildlife to travel "out" of the Peninsula to larger, connected areas where they may find unoccupied habitat to establish their own territories. And so, given his age, and the location of his capture, I made a prediction while fitting him with the radio-collar: “Jasper will be hit by a car within a matter of months.” 

The popular infographic that we posted on Facebook about Jasper's frequent M3 crossings.

Jasper has gained a bit of attention on the project. He was our only individual to regularly cross the M3, and his crossing was even highlighted on talk radio in Cape Town. His pictures and story were also featured in a recent Sunday Times article, and we posted an infographic about his crossings on the project Facebook page, which was very popular and viewed by thousands of people. 

Jasper looking bright-eyed at the time of his capture. 

In line with my predictions, on July 14, 2015, at 11:30am, Jasper was hit by a car on the M3 near Newlands Forest. He was hit on the southbound lane, trying to cross from the fragmented habitat east of the freeway to travel back towards Table Mountain National Park (TMNP). The driver reported that Jasper suddenly tried to quickly cross the highly trafficked road, taking him (the driver) completely by surprise– the accident was unavoidable.

As a biologist that has spent years studying threats to survivals of charismatic wild cats (bobcats and mountain lions) in urban Los Angeles, I thought I would share how we handle project “logistics” surrounding the death of our study animals, the significance of the event for the project, and then some of the “positives” as I see them. 

Me carrying Jasper at the time of his capture to a shady spot where we were going to fit him with a radio-collar. Given that he was a small, young male, I predicted then that he would soon be hit by a car.

Five different people reported jasper’s death, including the person who hit Jasper, called me to report the death, and 3 called within 15 minutes of the incident. This quick action by the community afforded us the opportunity to immediately go into action to recover the body, and document the location and circumstances of Jasper's death. So when we hear of a road kill, our policy is to drop everything and rush to the scene to gather as much information as possible. Often, we have observed that road kill can disappear within a matter of minutes by someone picking it up (for a variety of unknown reasons). So this is another reason that we mobilize quickly. Urban Caracal Project interns were luckily able to arrive within 30 minutes of the incident to recover the body and the radio-collar.  

A map showing where we recovered Jasper's body and where he was hit by the car.

Jasper was up against quite a formidable path in trying to cross the M3 here with thick and fast traffic and no easy clear path to the other side.

Our next critical step was to assess the “damage” and collect samples that can be used to understand if there were any factors that increased Jasper’s vulnerability to being hit by a car (i.e., rat poison exposure or disease). We performed a necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy) to collect samples from major organs and blood samples. We also took body measurements to assess his body condition and whether, as a young male, he rapidly grew in the last 3 months. We also collected his teeth so that we may be able to send them to a lab for “exact” aging because we are unable to do that based on tooth wear alone. We will use the blood and liver samples for disease and pesticide exposure testing. 

Jasper sustained significant injuries that likely caused instant death. 

Our findings were that he sustained major fractures to his head and hindquarters, suggesting that his death was immediate and that he did not suffer as a result of the incident. Pesticide and disease testing take months once samples are sent to a lab, but there was no evidence of abnormalities that we could observe led us to believe that exposure to either contributed to his death. However, during my bobcat study in California, I found evidence that recent, yet low level, exposure to rat poisons may increase bobcat likelihood of being hit by cars, and the same may be true for Cape Town caracals.

So what do I think was the main factor that led to his death, and frequency of crossing the M3? In my work on other projects examining the effects of urbanization on wild cats in California, USA, colleagues and myself have observed that especially young mountain lions of dispersal age but hemmed in by freeways are the most frequent individuals to be hit by cars. The animals that survive the longest in the Los Angeles area are the ones that use culverts and crossings that go under roads, thus reducing their probability of vehicle collision. 

Looking at Jasper’s movements over the past months, I’ve been skeptical that he was only using culverts to cross the M3, although I did visit one near Rhodes Memorial where I observed caracal tracks nearby, an indicator that the culvert possibly is used as a crossing point (we have placed a camera nearby to try to document potential crossings). But the frequency of Jasper’s crossings did suggest that he was at great risk for being hit by a car and his movement patterns suggested that he might not have always been using the culverts. So why was he crossing the M3 so much?  The most likely reason is that, as a young male at dispersal age, he was trying to find a new unoccupied territory, but the areas east of the M3 offer little habitat for caracals. So in regularly crossing, he seemed to be “exploring” different areas that could offer space for him.  We have also documented at least 3 other adult males (Laduma, Ratel, and Oryx) to use the Front Table area in direct overlap with Jasper, and so Jasper may have been trying to avoid encountering, and potential conflict, with these older males.  

So what does this mean for the project? Vehicle collision, thus far, has been the most frequent source of mortality that we’ve observed for caracals in this study. The loss of a radio-collared caracal helps to confirm this finding. Only by radio-collaring these elusive wild cats do we have the ability to investigate the frequency of death due to other causes because often wild animals die in areas unseen by humans (i.e., in the bush). So by radio-collaring the caracals, we are interested in other potential sources of mortality that we may be able to document if they die deep in the bush, but so far, we have primarily documented death due to vehicle collision. The study is yet in its early stages, but given the degree of habitat fragmentation, the major roads that fragment Table Mountain National Park, and the isolation of Table Mountain National Park by extensive, and dense, urbanisation, our findings thus far are not surprising. To persist in Table Mountain National Park, caracals must cross roads to find sufficient prey and potential mates, and so in this need, they are especially vulnerable to vehicle collision.  

I mentioned some positives that come from Jasper’s death. One positive is the data that we collected. It is very interesting to us that he attempted this crossing during the day!  Carnivores like caracals are known for being active at night, but we have been observing interesting daytime movement patterns in the local caracals. Most importantly, however, is that these data highlight that the implementation of wildlife corridors in rapidly urbanising cities, even beyond Cape Town, may be critical for the long-term persistence of even those species, such as caracals, that are relatively adaptable to urbanization. In documenting unfortunate deaths such as Jasper's, we contribute to the pool of evidence that wildlife corridors, particularly across major roads and through dense urban areas, are critical for wildlife conservation. 

But on another note…most surprising and rewarding to me was the number of people that called to report Jasper’s death! So, I want to commend the citizens that called to report the death as soon as they were able! Without the quick action, we may not have been able to recover his body. And because Jasper's radio-collar was destroyed when he was hit, we would not have known if his collar suddenly stopped functioning and Jasper was alive still, or if he was hit by a car and the collar destroyed. So, this quick action by numerous people shows that we have great community support, but also that the community thinks that the work we are doing is worthwhile. We are also getting the word out sufficiently that we are establishing ourselves as a resource for people to call and report these incidents, which means getting the community involved in a way that increases our productivity and ability to collect important data relevant to conservation.

This support helps fuel the project for me, because the project presents significant daily struggles. I am struggling greatly to find funding to buy  a sufficient number of radio-collars, I still have not found stable, financially viable, accommodations for our interns who are paying their own way(!), we need another bakkie for the interns to drive (we are looking for a used one!), and now with Jasper’s death, we are actually “down” a radio-collar (and therefore R30,000) because it was destroyed by the car that hit Jasper.  However, with increased recognition of our work, hopefully we will become more competitive in our grant-writing efforts, but also find community members able to provide some financial support for the project.  

Jasper's destroyed radiocollar

If you are one of those community members, please visit our 'Support' page. Any amount helps!

About me and my start in South Africa

By Laurel Serieys, PhD

I am driven by a lifelong aspiration to study wild cats. Since a time of self-awareness as a very young child, I have been traveling on a singular track to "live my dreams" and to confidently manifest my imagined life. Although this inherent interest born within me has been the driving force in my life, from this passion and curiosity has developed a well-rounded interest in ecology and nature and also my development and self-identification as a conservation biologist, first and foremost. 

I grew up in Dallas, Texas- an environment polar to that in the Cape Peninsula of South Africa. Flat, dry, grassy – I grew up in the heart of the city. Yet, just as I was born with an interest in studying wild felids, innate to my own functional biology is a profound interest, connection, and reliance on experiencing nature to fuel a content life.

Growing up in Dallas, with no researchers doing the kind of research I was interested in (at the time I was there), my approach to manifest my destiny was to read about the experience of other biologists, focus and do well in my studies, and plan ahead. I thought about how I would set myself apart from others who had similar life aspirations, and what aspect of wild cat biology I wanted to focus on in my future research. Somehow aware even at that young age (I was 15) the paucity of research examining the impacts of urbanization on wildlife, I decided that is where I would start when I got my "in" into the world of wild cat studies. I am a "doer" and a problem-solver. This life goal I hoped to achieve was a problem to work out and step one – I narrowed my direction in a manner that would set me apart from others with similar goals.

In college, I studied zoology yet unsure of how I would reach my goal but knowing that reaching my goal was unquestionable. I approached professors to conduct independent studies, because to me, although driven by an interest in certain species of animals, I am fundamentally at heart a die-hard scientist. I worked on numerous studies, some of which I developed even while in college – on insects, primates, and even on plants! This methodology fostered my development as an independently-thinking scientist with diverse interests and an ability to creatively approach the study of numerous taxa (species), insect, plant, or mammal. I demonstrated patience, versatility, and wide-ranging interests and I developed diverse skills that made me marketable to even those studying carnivores. Underlying every project I've taken on (either as assistant or lead researcher) is the firm belief that the work speaks for itself. Humility in interactions and self-presentation is important while pride in the quality of your work, and knowing that you've done the best  job possible, has been the key to my success to this point. 

With great joy, I finally got my start working with wild cats in 2006 as a volunteer with the National Park Service in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Los Angeles, California, USA. Simultaneous to applying for this position, I also applied for graduate school, shooting straight for my PhD (rather than getting a masters first). I was accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles graduate program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with the plan to continue the work I started with the National Park Service. There, in the Santa Monica Mountains, I was working on a long-term and ongoing study that examines the impact of urbanization on bobcats and mountain lions (see my other website UrbanCarnivores.com). This introduction to urban carnivore research was to change my life course, and my thinking about my future. I'd always wanted to work with large cats, like most who dream of studying wild cats! But I realized, working in Los Angeles on bobcats, the promise that smaller wild cats have to teach us about the threats to wild felids globally. I witnessed firsthand common, but critical, threats to wildlife living in close proximity to urbanization, and working in this megacity proved another smart move in my strategic approach to "achieving my dreams." There I observed roads, disease, and poisons to threaten numerous carnivore species, but especially bobcats. I hit on what I would study for my Ph.D.

Overall, with a grounded-interest in conservation, I have long felt that by focusing research on the effects of urban development on wildlife populations, we may build a launching pad to establish guidelines for the conservation of wildlife over the long-term in the increasingly urbanizing world. By working with populations of wild cats living in and around Los Angeles, I was able to focus my studies on a multifaceted topic that examined how various, but common, consequences of urbanization, such as habitat fragmentation by urban infrastructure, increased disease exposure, and exposure to common rat poisons, drives genetic change and disease susceptibility in urban bobcats. With great pride, the findings of my research have been published in numerous scientific journals.  Further – a conservation biologist's dream – the data for a portion of my bobcat work was recently used to inform new legislative regulations regarding the availability and use of certain types of rat poisons across the State of California. My work and website (UrbanCarnivores.com) have also informed local activist movements in California that have led to the banning of rat poisons in various local municipalities in southern California, including within the City of Los Angeles. From these experiences, I learned the paramount importance of communicating research findings with the general public, and for this reason, the Urban Caracal Project has a website and Facebook page- to get people interested in the project, and the findings, from the get go!

Dreaming my next big challenge, I conceived the Urban Caracal Project in early 2013. In awe of the adaptability of numerous carnivore species in the face of increasing urbanization in southern California, I was eager to continue on the path of urban carnivore research, but this time, in a foreign country. I chose Cape Town for a variety of reasons, but important among them was the opportunity to study caracals isolated in a relatively small area by Cape Town- and to study how extreme isolation may be driving evolutionary changes in these cats genetically, and how behaviorally they may be adapting to the extreme isolation. So, in 2014 I traveled far from the United States to launch the effort with the support of Cape Leopard Trust who believed in the promise of the project. As Project Coordinator, I lead the field team while also conducting the field and lab work, raising much of the funds required to run the project through grant-writing and rallying private donations. I also manage the website and Facebook page. Getting a project up and running is difficult under the best of circumstances with the logistics of it all overwhelming. Getting the funding, compiling and purchasing equipment, getting permits, collaborators, research support, strategic planning for the field and lab work, etc. – and all this in a foreign country where I have also been overwhelmed by the logistics of establishing a life, and have experienced the loss of comfort of familiarity in my surroundings and my support group. I have also had to adapt to many cultural, academic, and bureaucratic differences, meanwhile keep this train running.

This study has proven more difficult than anticipated, and the sacrifices I have had to make unpredicted. The caracals are in very low densities and so hard to catch for a variety of reasons, including their low densities and the challenge of trapping in a highly trafficked park where crime is a primary concern. Add to that critical challenge a list of other problems– my personnel attrition due to the difficult nature of the research. The recent massive fire burned approximately 1/3 of my study area, which frightens me for the persistence of caracals in those areas. Theft has been a major issue- remote cameras, a trap, a work bag, and I interrupted attempted theft at my field vehicle after I finished checking a trap.

But my path in life, despite productive and successful thus far, has also been bumpy along the way with other challenges overcome, and perhaps because so, I am prepared to keep going. Despite the challenges I've experienced here, I find that the Cape Peninsula is so beautiful, the sacrifices are worthwhile. It is so polarized- in beauty, serenity, and crime and violence in people and nature, it keeps me awake. It makes me feel like complaints about theft, and all the loss - support groups, study area, study animals, research equipment, familiarity, etc. are petty... so I don't do a lot of complaining. 

A recent trip to the top of Lion's Head proves my choice to come here was pretty good!

Justin's Blog Entry: About me and my date with Fire Lily

Greetings Urban Caracal Project supporters! I am a proud new member of the Urban Caracal Project team- the first full-time volunteer to work on the project. I recently graduated with a bachelor's degree in science from Washington University, and post-graduation was eager to work abroad and be exposed to science, research, and conservation challenges outside of the US.  So, last month I traveled from the USA to stay in South Africa and work on local research projects. While initially I'd planned to work on the baboon study in Tokai, the February/March fire threw a wrench in those plans.  But the unexpected hitch led me to the Urban Caracal Project, which I am loving! With research interests in the fields of spatial ecology and population dynamics, especially in the context of urbanization and climate change, this project is particularly well-suited to my interests.  And having started only last week, I am fortunate enough to have already seen my first caracal, Fire Lily... 

I get butterflies in my stomach not from public speaking, not from catching the eye of that pretty girl across the room, and not from staggering heights. Instead, I get them from moments in life where the raw and unequivocal perfection of nature exposes itself and forcefully reminds me of our place on this earth and how fortunate we are to share our home with so many amazing creatures.

 Fire Lily (aka, TMC#03) just after capture, awaiting darting so that she could be fitted with a radio-collar as part of the Urban Caracal Project.

Fire Lily (aka, TMC#03) just after capture, awaiting darting so that she could be fitted with a radio-collar as part of the Urban Caracal Project.

I experienced this feeling recently during the capture of a caracal, where the strength and beauty of one of the world’s least know felids manifested itself in the form of an aged female who had unknowingly wandered into one of our field traps. Euphoria, anticipation, and anxiety burned across my mind like wildfire as I stood just meters away from this elusive African cat and waited for the sedating effects of Dr. Bruce Stevens’ (project vet)  tranquilizers to take its course and lull it into a temporary nap. As the cat was retrieved from the trap and its vitals began to be monitored, I was reminded of the childlike excitement I used to feel at chasing lizards and from coming across miniature life in the tide pools as a kid. That excitement was rekindled in this moment, not only from having the rare opportunity of being inches away from a wild carnivore, but knowing that this was the big leagues – and that the mission of better understanding these cats in order to protect them might allow future generations to be able to experience this same childlike wonder.  

Having the fortune of assisting the Urban Caracal Project, I began transcribing various measurements and ensured that her vitals remained stable while a GPS collar was affixed around her neck and her ticks were removed. As samples were collected for genetic cataloging, a sense of calm washed over me as I watched the rhythmic expansion and contraction of her lungs within her dreamless sleep. Seeing one of nature’s perfect killing machines in a state of absolute rest gave me chills up my spine, reminiscing over the millions of years that had transformed her species into a most formidable predator.  After everything was in order and all the notes had been made, she rose from her sleep and groggily made her way into the bush. She paused a few times, looking over her shoulder with eyes filled with confusion. Surely, she would be filled with memories of this day that she would never understand, but thanks to her participation the future of her species is only looking brighter.