One of the best parts of running this blog is that I can reach out to interesting researchers to find out about their field work. One such biologist is Marine Drouilly of the Karoo Predator Project. I wrote to her about caracals and she responded with a fascinating Q&A about caracals. jackals and more. Thanks, Marine!! Without further ado, here’s her Q&A!
- 1. How did you become interested in wildlife and predators, in particular?
As far as I can remember I have always been interested in the natural world and I have a lifelong fascination for carnivores and the conservation challenges they present. I travelled a lot with my family in diverse parts of the world to observe and photograph wildlife and nature when I was a child and it probably accentuated my passion.
2. Before we get to your work in South Africa, please tell us a little about the other research projects you have been involved with. I see mention of bears, zebras and genets, to name just a few.
After graduating with an MSc in ecology and conservation and before starting the Karoo Predator Project in South Africa in 2013, I was involved in several research projects as a field technician. I wanted to get more field experience because my MSc was very theoretical and learn as many techniques as possible to study wildlife, from camera-trapping and scat analysis to tracking and live and ethical capturing of wild animals. I worked in Europe on bighorn sheep, common genets, stone-curlews and hen harriers. In North America, I was involved with projects on brown bears and Kodiak brown bears, pikas and dark-eyed juncos and in Africa on zebras, elephants andleopards and on a primate and predator project (African civets, brown hyenas, leopards, genets, chacma baboons and samango monkeys).
- What brought you to Africa to study caracals and jackals?
I have always loved Africa for its vast and wild places, its amazing wildlife, its various cultures and the peoples. I had the opportunity to come to Africa to work on three different research projects for the conservation of predators. These projects allowed me to meet with very good researchers in ecology and social sciences at the University of Cape Town and that’s how I started the Karoo Predator Project. Predators are particularly challenging to study because they are often shy, nocturnal, occur at low densities and come in conflict with human populations. Caracals and black-backed jackals on farmlands meet these criteria. I wanted to work on a Project with wildlife AND people because you cannot do conservation without involving the local communities and understanding their needs and fears. One of the strengths of the Project is that it is multidisciplinary and involves a great variety of actors, from social scientists to ecologists, farmers to professional hunters and local to international media.
- How did you capture the animals you collared?
Caracals, like many species of wild felids are captured using cages that you bait and make more attractive to the cats by using visual lures like feathers. Canadian lynx and bobcats are captured the same way in North America. For black-backed jackals it is more difficult as they are very clever and became wary of anything new in their environment due to persecution (even camera traps!). Young and naive individuals can be trapped in cages but adults need to be caught using leg-hold devices such as soft-catch that I modified with an expert trapper to make them even more humane. I check both kinds of traps very frequently to minimize stress and injury to the animals.
- It must have been a great thrill to touch the first caracal you collared for your study. Can you tell us a little about that?
I love wild animals because of the adjective “wild” so for me it is more exciting to see a caracal in the wild than to touch a sedated one. But I would not be honest saying that I was not very excited when I collared the first one for the study! The first individual collared on the Project was an adult male caught in a cage in a deep canyon. The collaring happened at night like most of the collaring I am doing because the studied species are mostly nocturnal on farmlands. It was a very beautiful and healthy animal that we called Freedom. Freedom liked to spend his time in very steep slopes of mountains and on high vantage points.
- How would you describe the personality of caracals? Are they generally fairly calm or do they tend to be more highly strung?
I very rarely see caracals in the wild so it is difficult for me to answer this question, as I don’t spend a lot of time observing them directly. I use remote ways to study them like camera-traps set on picture and video modes, GPS collaring and the collection of their scats. However, I would say that the caracals I managed to observe a bit more are very similar to domestic cats. They spend a lot of time sleeping and resting and are quite playful. When they hunt, they get extremely low on their belly to stalk their prey before jumping on them. A caracal is an extremely powerful animal able to take down prey three times its own weight.
- Is there a “pecking order” among the predators in your study? I would assume that leopards dominate all other species in your study area.
I am mostly studying black-backed jackals and caracals that are mesopredators but in one of my field sites there are also leopards. They are apex predators and occupy the highest trophic level in the area. However it has not been scientifically proved if they control the population dynamics of the two mesopredators. Some conservationists suggest that where you find leopards you don’t find caracals but it has never been properly studied. My study will bring some information towards the question, but only baseline results.
- What are the general differences you have found between the species present on farms and on protected reserves?
I am still at an early stage of the study and am mostly conducting fieldwork at the moment. The statistical analysis of the data will inform us more accurately on the question. So far I can say that there is an important difference in the diet of black-backed jackals between farms where they are eating a lot of meat, including lambs, and protected areaswhere they are eating mostly berries and some murids. There seems to be a difference of activity patterns with wildlife becoming more nocturnal on farmlands than on protected areas. Caracals occur on farms but are extremely rarely detected on the protected area I am studying, where leopards are present. It is however too early to say if it is the presence of leopards that is the cause of their rarity.
- What is the main suggestion you have for farmers to reduce their losses to predators? Do they need to take more specific husbandry precautions?
This is THE question! And it is a hard one, a lot harder than what many people would like to think. Well, I would say that it really depends on the breed of livestock that you have and the environment in which you are farming (and many more factors). There are some places where the use of a guard dog (like Anatolian or Maluti dogs) would work very well. In the Karoo where my Project takes place, sheep graze over very extensive hilly or mountainous areas and the breed that is mostly used by farmers does not flock. The vegetation is extremely fragile mainly due to low rainfall so using night enclosures is also difficult because of overgrazing that consequently occurs (sheep graze mainly at night because temperatures are too high to do so during the day). Black-backed jackals are becoming extremely clever and it is hard to find a solution that works over a long period of time. At the moment I am suggesting to the farmers that they keep a close eye on their ewes and especially when they are lambing. If possible and depending on the vegetation condition, they should bring them close to the homestead. Some precautions like electric fencing have been suggested too but an impact study needs to be conducted on other wildlife species of the area. Protective collars or bells on lambs, random noises and lights in the camps and guard dogs have been tried by some farmers in the area with no long-term success.
10. What has been the most surprising thing you have discovered about caracals so far?
Very few studies have been conducted on caracals so far, so everything we find is a discovery! For me the most surprising was probably the amount of time a caracal is spending in the same area without moving a lot, even without killing a big prey. I was expecting them to walk over large distances every day but my data rather show that they spend several days at the same spot and then move to another spot where they spend again a lot of time.It is like if they were intensively hunting rodents and other wildlife in a small area before moving to the next one.
11. How has it been for you being a female biologist from France who doesn’t eat meat working in the midst of stock-raising farmers? It must have been quite an adjustment for you.
J It may surprise you but I got used to it very quickly. I usually don’t need a lot of time to adjust to new conditions. We are different but we respect each other and farmers have been amazing, really showing interest in the Project and some of them helping me a lot. They certainly think I am weird and a bit crazy to work alone in the vast landscape of the Karoo, catching predators and looking for their scats, hiking up mountains when it’s 50°C outside to set camera-traps and not eating meat but a real trust established between us and it is working well, even if we are different.
12. How do you explain the importance of predators to those who don’t like them?
It is difficult to explain the importance of predators to someone who is losing a big part of his income to predators. Many farmers of my area know the role of predators quite well though and realize they are important for the balance in the ecosystem, but they don’t want them on their farms. They are not against predators really and most of them say they like seeing them in the wild in protected areas but they don’t want them among their sheep. I am currently conducting questionnaires with farmers on their tolerance to wildlife and predators in particular. The results of this study will help a lot with the kind of information we need to tell them about predators.
13. Is there a favorite caracal or jackal anecdote that you’d like to share? Or a favorite individual animal?
I don’t really have a favorite animal but I am very fond of all the predators I collared of course. Because I am studying conflict there are some difficult situations. One of the female black-backed jackals I collared travelled a lot more than expected and she got caught in a gin-trap on a farm. I saw that she was not moving anymore thanks to the GPS data with Iridium technology that I am using. I was stuck in Cape Town because my 4×4 was broken and needed repair. I called the head farmer of the area to get some help and he directly said he would go and have a look. Unfortunately, the jackal lost her paw and we all thought she would die a few days later. But against all odds, she survived and is now living on three legs. When I visit her GPS clusters of points to look at what she eats and for her scats I find dead birds and tortoises. This little female is not even attacking sheep, the easiest prey of the area (which was what I feared a lot)! This story shows how these predators can be tough and intelligent. I have a huge respect for them. They live extremely hard lives and survive terrible conditions.
14. What are your plans after you finish your PhD?
I still have 2 years to go before finishing but I already have lots of plans for the future. I would like to make the Karoo Predator Project a long-term study on farmer-predator conflict. We are so lucky to have farmers who are willing to work with researchers and help! I hope we will be able to involve more students and hopefully NGOs and governmental agencies to help find long-term solutions that are good for wildlife and people. I also want to keep studying human-carnivore conflict because I think finding solutions is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century for conservation biologists. I am not sure yet where I will go next time, but the problem exists on every single continent so there is work to do if there is enough funding.
15. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to tell all the young people who would like to work with wildlife and conservation to try and do it! It is a long way, there are not many opportunities but if you are hardworking and passionate there will be room for you.
I would also like to add that two wildlife photographers will be reporting on the Project, the wildlife and the farmers this year and next year. You can follow their adventures on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AuCoeurduKaroo. They are currently looking for more funding and they created a KKBB page where you can help their project (translated in English soon): http://www.kisskissbankbank.com/au-coeur-du-karoo-predator-project