A camera trap assessment of factors influencing leopard (Panthera pardus) habitat use in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Republic of Congo

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are faced with increasing levels of anthropogenic pressure resulting in population declines across much of their historical range. While there is relatively limited knowledge of leopards occurring in African rain forests, their abundance and distribution is assumed to be impacted by a combination of several anthropogenic factors, most notably loss of prey and habitat conversion. In this study I used a long-term camera trap array that forms part of the Tropical Ecology, Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) project - Terrestrial Vertebrate (Camera Trapping) Monitoring Protocol, to estimate the species richness of mammals, the relative abundance of leopard prey species and leopard habitat use in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park (NNNP) in the Republic of Congo. I investigated the impact of different environmental and anthropogenic factors on leopard occurrence at two camera trap arrays (a northern and southern cluster) within the NNNP using occupancy modelling. While there were no significant differences in mammalian species richness between the two clusters there was a higher relative abundance of the preferred prey species of leopards in the northern cluster. A total of 106 leopard photographic events were recorded across all camera traps and all survey years. The top occupancy model produced an average probability of site use (ψ) over all sites of 0.52 ± 0.14 (SE). The covariate specific β-coefficient estimate suggests that leopard occurrence and detectability were positively correlated with both the relative abundance of the blue duiker (Philantomba monticola) and the distance to the nearest river (β =0.062 ± SE 0.053 and 6.55 ± SE 10.84, respectively). Therefore there was no support for the prediction that the probability of leopard habitat use increases with a higher relative abundance of all potential prey species, nor was there support for the prediction that leopard habitat use would be higher further away from human settlements (β =3.42 ± SE 2.94). 2 Leopard habitat use was higher in the southern cluster which may be linked to the denser understory that would provide greater cover which is important for improved hunting success in leopards. Together, these results suggest that both the prey species and leopards appear to be thriving within the NNNP with limited evidence of anthropogenic impacts despite an increase in commercial logging and the itinerant bushmeat hunting in the peripheral area. It would be worth expanding the existing camera trap arrays to cover a greater spatial extent within NNNP and hence allow for a more detailed analysis of edge effects and to detect the potential impacts of anthropogenic activities which are predicted to increase in selected villages in the periphery of the park.