We are very experienced at finding leopards in protected areas, where they can roam safely. But when it comes to community lands under poaching pressure, it’s quite a different story. A different type of expertise is needed – not from field-based biologists, but from local hunters and rangers. They know exactly where to expect leopards as both prey and safe places tend to be widely dispersed and patchy, and hunters are much more familiar with where these are to be found. So, why not involve local expertise to help us find leopards?
After working for more than a year with local hunters in our Hyrcanian (Caspian) pilot site at Dohezar-Sehezar, we found some we could trust sufficiently to involve them in this inventory work. We have to make sure that the participating hunters won’t pose a risk to the leopards if they find them in camera images, and to do that, we asked our local ranger partner to screen them and advise on which local hunters we could trust with the task.
Eleven cameras were deployed which trigger when an animal passes in front of them. To our surprise, two different leopards, one of each sex, were photographed during the first month. We did not expect that in community lands with a moderate level of poaching and intensive cattle ranching any leopard would be detected after just a few weeks. Along with the leopards, many additional species have been imaged, including jungle cat, brown bear and grey wolf. Currently we are still hoping to camera-trap more leopards, although with no great expectation of success; nevertheless we are continuing the Dohezar-Sehezar inventory-counting project aided by the local hunters. This new venture has shown how local knowledge can be drawn upon to help us find the unexpected, and it’s a good example of how local expertise should be respected if a collaborative approach to conservation is planned.