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TitleConservation of leopards (Panthera Pardus) in the Eastern and Western Cape, South Africa: investigating the effect of land use,gene flow and connectivity
AuthorMcManus, Jeannine Stephanie
AbstractA thesis submitted to the Faculty of Science in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 2018
AbstractThe increasing extent of human-altered landscapes and associated human activities is projected to cause irreparable damage to biodiversity and ecosystem function by the end of the century. The conservation of species requires understanding the abilities and limitations of species persistence in modified landscapes and how this affects species population dynamics and connectivity between populations. The persistence of species in the face of altered habitat depends, in part, on the capacity of habitat patches to promote occupancy, and the ability of individuals to reach these patches and ensure fitness within them by balancing resources and threats despite the altered nature of the habitat. The distribution of animal populations across the landscape is the result of decisions individuals make in selecting and avoiding environmental characteristics over time. Carnivores interact strongly with other species and thereby have the ability to structure communities and ecosystems, often making them a focal species for conservation planning. Leopards (Panthera pardus) are the last freeroaming large carnivores in South Africa and, while they are considered highly adaptable to environmental changes, most leopard habitat exists outside protected areas, where they are increasingly threatened by habitat fragmentation and human-caused mortality. Their important ecological role and vulnerability to humans have raised concerns regarding the likelihood of carnivores to survive in human-altered landscapes. This thesis examines the behaviour of leopards in their environment, and how these behaviours influence leopard distribution, population structure and connectivity. This study found that conspecifics, sex-related differences and anthropogenic landscape features effect how leopards distribute themselves in the landscape, influence movement patterns, and shape their population structure. Sexes employed different strategies in selecting habitat and movement patterns, likely because of different reproductive- and conspecific avoidance strategies. Often habitat prediction modelling for solitary carnivores does not incorporate sex, and conspecifics’ locations and this research found these variables are important in leopard habitat selection and movement patterns. Male and female leopards, respectively, spent 70% iv and 40% of the time moving in long, straight movement patterns (inter patch behaviour). Inter patch behaviour is indicative of low resource areas, fragmented habitat, or areas with higher intraspecific avoidance and is employed to move quickly between habitat patches. Connectivity between habitat patches was reduced by human-associated features such as roads, and promoted by mountainous areas, rivers and protected areas, the latter being less affected by human-associated features. Despite the high occupancy of inter patch behaviour displayed by males, the leopard population in the region are genetically sub-structured into three subpopulations. While this population broadly conforms to a metapopulation model, gene flow between the three identified subpopulations shows low to moderate gene flow and requires management to ensure continued connectivity between these populations. These findings can contribute to improving leopard management policy at a landscape level to ensure this flagship species survives in heterogeneous environments.