Helping Leopards (and Farmers) Change Their Spots

by Michael Mullaney on August 2, 2010

Graduate students visiting Rensselaer from Stellenbosch University in South Africa are working on a fascinating project: tracking leopards.

The project is just starting out, and research will take place on both sides of the Atlantic. The Stellenboschers spent the past two weeks at Rensselaer in the peerless Design Lab, and then a group of Rensselaer students will visit Stellenbosch in western South Africa over winter break. In the meantime, both teams will work on their parts over the fall semester.

The students are looking to develop new technologies and systems for tracking leopards through the South African ecosystem. Understanding the migration and hunting patterns of leopards is expected to result in a decrease in the killing of farm animals by leopards, as well as a decrease in leopard trapping and killing by farmers.

As their natural habitat in South Africa shrinks because of development, leopards are increasingly wandering onto farms and killing domesticated and farm animals. To defend their land, farmers typically trap and kill the leopards – which often has the opposite intended effect and leads to several more leopards moving into the area.

The goal of the interdisciplinary project is to protect the leopard population through real-time tracking. By tracking the leopards and better understanding their travel and migration patterns, it will be possible to warn farmers and area residents to take precautions – such as putting farm animals in the barn – when leopards are near. This should result in less killing by, and of, leopards. The student team is partnering with the Cape Leopard Trust.

Here’s how the Trust currently operates: it puts out cages in areas known to be inhabited by leopards, and then rangers drive around holding a big radio antenna out of their car to try and pick up a signal that the cages emit after an animal has been trapped. If it’s a leopard, they collar and release it. It’s difficult work, and the fact that an individual leopard hunts an area up to 1,000-square-kilometers, it’s logistically and technologically challenging.

The student project aims to improve this process substantially. They’re looking to create better, longer-lived collars that emit GPS information and are self-powered with built-in kinetic or solar energy harvesting. Additionally, the students are investigating using video surveillance technology to build smarter cages that the rangers can open remotely if the animal caught was not a leopard. Also of interest is a more robust radio network to let these different technologies talk to each other. The students are also looking at an entirely new paradigm of tracking, which uses video surveillance, shape recognition, and computer vision to identify and follow the travel patterns of leopards without the need for trapping and collaring.

Rensselaer last year inked a breakthrough exchange agreement with Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa. See our original news story announcing the agreement.

Below are some breathtaking photos taken by the Stellenbosch students when conducting on-site research for the project:

Also, there’s more good info and great visuals in this short video on leopard tracking in South Africa: