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Wild for cats: Sango's Successful Leopard Monitoring Program

The Savé Valley Conservancy in south-eastern Zimbabwe is an area of outstanding ecological importance. At the heart of this biodiverse landscape, at Sango Private Game Reserve, our ecologists Brandon Giddey and Bayleigh Miles run a successful leopard monitoring programme. In this article, we explore Sango’s impactful leopard conservation and it’s broader importance for Zimbabwe and southern Africa.

Conservation in Sango: An Ecological Gem

Brandon and Bayleigh’s journey began in late 2022 when they joined our staff as Sango’s ecologists. Drawing from their experiences studying at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elisabeth and working in various regions of Southern Africa, they emphasize the immense conservation value of Sango within Savé Valley Conservancy. Furthermore, the Save Valley Conservancy is located at the northernmost tip of the Greater Trans-Frontier Limpopo National Conservation Area, highlighting its importance in the conservation of the metapopulation of leopards within the region which may allow animals such as leopard to migrate from Kruger National Park. 

Brandon and Bayleigh state that “Sango protects more than 80 leopards at a density of 14.5 leopards per 100 km² which is possibly rivaling some of the highest leopard densities in southern Africa. The reasons for Sango’s strong leopard population include high prey densities, protection against persecution, and sustainable hunting.”

Sango’s Leopard Monitoring Program

“Understanding leopard population trends allows us to adapt our management strategies to protect leopards in light of anthropogenic influences such as climate change, poaching, and human wildlife conflict” says Brandon, explaining the motivation behind the leopard monitoring program. “In other words the more we know about our leopard population the better we can protect them.

Therefore, our aim is to ID each individual leopard on Sango so that we can monitor them more intensely and hopefully get answers to many questions such as; are leopards immigrating or emigrating from Sango? What is causing mortality? What are the birth rates?” For Brandon and Bayleigh the answers to these questions are crucial to better manage and conserve the leopards on Sango, underscoring the project’s critical role in species conservation.

With a comprehensive understanding of the leopard population dynamics, the team at Sango is equipped to implement targeted conservation measures that will safeguard these magnificent creatures and their environment for generations to come.

“Rivalling some of the highest leopard densities in southern Africa”

Brendan Giddey - Ecologist Sango Private Game Reserve

Identifying Leopards with Artificial Intelligence

To identify’s leopards, our ecologists use a specialized software which identifies individuals using AI-driven facial, spot pattern, and whisker pattern recognition. “Each individual leopard has a unique spot and whisker pattern, almost like a human’s finger print.”, says Bayleigh, “When we receive an image of a leopard we input it into the software, where it can be identified using its unique spot and whisker patterns, and matched to a known individual from our existing database.”

“Our primary method of capturing these invaluable images is through strategically placed camera traps in areas frequented by leopards. We have a number of camera traps on the property and we keep moving them around and putting them in different places where we know that leopards frequent ”, says Brandon.“These motion-activated cameras provide a non-invasive approach, allowing us to document the animals without disturbing their natural behaviour. In addition, we’re generally very knowledgeable about the land and have some incredible scouts and trackers on the property to help us.“ Guests visiting Sango Wildlife Lodge are encouraged to take part in this conservation effort by photographing  leopards, providing data and assiting in Sangos leopard monitoring.

Enhancing Leopard Conservation: Collaborating Programs for Comprehensive Monitoring in Sango

The leopard monitoring program on Sango is just one of the conservation initiatives dedicated to monitoring leopard populations. Thanks to the combined effort of the Zimbabwe National Leopard Monitoring Project, Panthera, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority as well as  Savé Valley Conservancy, Sango benefits from access to valuable data and photographs of leopards in the region.

Both programs complement each other well, as they follow different approaches, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of leopard dynamics and behavior in Sango and contributing to effective conservation efforts.

The value of long-term monitoring

“Sango’s leopard monitoring is a long-term endeavor and forms part of our evidence based conservation management approach. Long-term monitoring using robust, repeatable methodology allows us to make more informed decisions and adapt our conservation strategies based on emerging trends and challenges,” says Brandon, emphasizing the significance of sustained dedication in achieving meaningful conservation outcomes.

The bigger picture

“At Sango we have a holistic conservation management approach, which means we strive for biodiversity – protecting all species and ecosystem functions. The reason we focus on leopards is that they are keystone species which means they are crucial in maintaining a functioning, healthy, diverse ecosystem. Biodiversity is key in combating anthropogenic influences such as climate change” says Bayleigh, showing us the bigger picture behind monitoring and conserving leopards.

Challenges and Triumphs in Conservation

“As with any conservation effort, there are challenges we face. One of the biggest challenges is human-wildlife conflict, especially when leopards move outside of Sango into adjacent community lands. This conflict can arise when leopards prey on cattle or, in rare instances, pose a threat to human safety. Our goal is to mitigate these conflicts by preserving corridors between areas and ensuring the free movement of animals across the landscape,” Brandon explains, acknowledging the complexities and obstacles inherent in conservation work.

The migration corridor starts in the south at the Kruger National Park and ends in the Savé Valley.

Funfact: Leopard’s Tree-dacious Dining​

Did you know that leopards are excellent climbers and can haul their prey, such as,a male impala which weigh between 50 and 70 kg’s – often as heavy as themselves, up into the trees to keep it safe from scavengers? Their incredible strength and agility allow them to stash their meals in branches, providing both a hidden dining spot and a strategic advantage for avoiding other predators.

Frequently questions and answers

How can I get involved in Sango’s leopard monitoring programme?
As a guest at Sango, you have the unique opportunity to join our ecologists, Brandon and Bayleigh, on exciting conservation expeditions. You’ll get hands-on experience tracking leopards, interpreting their footprints and using camera traps to capture their moments in the wild. It’s an incredible way to contribute to conservation efforts and get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures.

Why is long-term monitoring essential for leopard conservation?
Long-term monitoring is essential because it provides us with valuable insights into the behaviour and dynamics of the leopard population. By tracking their movements, studying their age distribution and understanding their interactions, we can make informed decisions to effectively conserve them. This ongoing approach helps us to adapt our strategies based on emerging trends and challenges, ensuring the conservation of leopard populations for future generations.

What impact does Sango’s leopard monitoring have on broader conservation efforts?

By participating in our leopard monitoring, Sango is not only protecting the local leopard population, but also contributing valuable data to global conservation science. The information collected helps us and researchers around the world understand leopard behaviour, population trends and the impact of environmental factors. Guests who help monitor our leopards become part of a larger conservation movement, making a real difference to the protection of these majestic creatures.

Brandon Giddey joins the Sango team in 2023

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Here we are

Stretching from the Bikita Hills in the west and crossing nine major habitat zones to the Save River in the east, Sango provides guests with 60,000 hectares (600 km2) of untamed Africa in the heart of Savé Valley Conservancy.

Directions to Sango

Stretching from the Bikita Hills in the west crossing nine major habitat zones to the Savé River in the east, Sango Private Game Reserve is situated in the Savé Valley Conservancy in south-eastern Zimbabwe.

By Air to Sango Airstrip
Fly with a commercial airline to Harare Airport, Zimbabwe, clear immigration and customs and charter a private flight to Sango Airstrip. Approximate journey time from Harare to Sango is 1 hour.

By Road
Fly with a commercial airline to Harare Airport, Zimbabwe, clear immigration and customs and be collected by our airport transfer for the journey by road to Sango. Approximate journey time from Harare to Sango is 4 – 5 hours.

Air and/or road transfers as well as hotel accommodation before and/or after your stay at Sango can be arranged by our staff upon request.