Luring camera-shy leopards with the promise of sweet fragrance

Researchers will be heading to northeastern Kenya this summer to continue working on community-based conservation initiatives for reticulated giraffe and African leopard.

Leopards can be one of the most challenging animals to track in the wild. Elusive and shy, leopards are masters of disguise, often seamlessly blending into the background. However, for their conservation, it is vital that we determine how many leopards exist in the wild, and in many areas this information is missing. So, what is the best way to count leopards?

That is one of the questions we are trying to answer, as we ready for the field season in Kenya. We will be using remote cameras to photograph leopards, and their unique coat patterns allow us to distinguish individuals.

But it is not as easy as just setting a bunch of cameras in the wild and hoping for the best. Researchers will often set cameras out in regularly spaced grids, with the idea of getting a sample of the animals that occupy the habitat. However, camera grids aimed at snapping pictures of secretive animals can suffer from low detection rates, and it can take many cameras operating for many days to get a sense of abundance. This can slow the time required to get an accurate population estimate and increase the workload of sorting thousands of images to find the few images of leopards.

This year in Kenya, we will be taking a different tact: luring leopards into getting their picture taken. To understand what may attract a leopard to our cameras, we turned to our resident leopard experts here at San Diego Zoo, Gaylene Thomas and Todd Speis. They told us: Successful scent attractants for leopards include a variety of herbs - except catnip, ironically!  Scents such as wintergreen, cinnamon, and colognes such as CK Obsession for Men also do well.

So given that advice, we head to Kenya armed with colognes and essential oils – not the usual items one has for fieldwork. We will test which scent lures work the best to bring leopards out from hiding and have them linger long enough to get good images of coat patterns.

And we will be careful not to be tempted to musk up.

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