With our partners on the ground, the Ivorian Office of Parks and Reserves (OIPR), Panthera supports Côte d'Ivoire's Taï National Park to establish the status of leopard populations in the region. Accompanied by Panthera field technician Robin Horion and a team from the OIPR, Dr. Marine Drouilly, our Regional Carnivore Monitoring Coordinator for West and Central Africa, shares her experiences monitoring leopards.
The Green Inferno
I could just scarcely make out one of our rangers ahead. In front of us, the green inferno, a wall of vegetation so thick that each step had me second guessing if we were moving at all. Our slow advance saw us barely covering a speed of one kilometer each hour. Nonetheless, our lead ranger patiently hacked away at the dense, narrow trail with his machete, a tool so necessary for this tropical forest that you cannot move forward without one.
A mere fifteen minutes before, Panthera Field Technician Robin Horion had almost stepped on a massive, highly venomous Gaboon adder camouflaged on a fallen trunk. This was not the typical African safari experience! We were in the depth of Taï National Park in the Ivory Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site of more than 5000 km2 of continuous and relatively intact forest at the border with Liberia. On the first of a trilogy of expeditions, we were on a journey to deploy 100 camera traps that would tell us more about the leopards and African golden cats living in this mysterious forest.
Rare Animals Worthy of Fairy Tales
Taï National Park is part of the last ten percent of the original dense forest cover of the Upper Guinean Forest of West Africa. It supports a staggering number of endemic and rare species, making it a priority for global conservation. This includes little-known creatures worthy of fairy tales such as pygmy hippos, giant pangolins, the Endangered Jentink’s duiker (a type of small antelope) and the Vulnerable zebra duiker. The park also harbors a subspecies of chimpanzee known for its ability to build and use 26 different types of tools, some of which can crack nuts.
Despite hosting more than one-quarter of the roughly 1,100 mammal species found in Africa, Taï National Park is full of secrets. Most animals show themselves sparingly. However, they are always watching, looking from behind a prickly vine or peering down at us from the dense, dark canopy.
Albeit non-verbally, animals are constantly talking to one another, leaving messages written in scents on leaves and bark. We were in Taï National Park to try and decrypt some of them. Working on the ground with our conservation partner and manager of the park, the Ivorian Office of Parks and Reserves (OIPR), our role was to assess the status of leopard and African golden cat populations in the park and to determine the threats they are facing; this would help us better address conservation challenges. Each little piece of information is precious: a trunk scarred with scratch marks left by a territorial male leopard, the remains of a bird killed by an African golden cat, a dry leopard scat — we compiled all the data we could find. Meanwhile, we deployed our motion-activated cameras, which would take pictures each day for the next three months.
Eyes in the Dark?
Even though it was the dry season, the rain relentlessly battered my tent. A short lull in the raging downpour allowed me to peer out through one of the ventilation flaps and into the vast darkness. Something caught my eye. Were those other eyes looking back at me with the same interest and bewilderment? But this was just my imagination. I knew that sometime soon, the forest would offer a unique animal encounter, maybe with a giant pangolin, zebra duiker, pygmy hippo or even a leopard. Those rare and precious moments make our work worthwhile and rewarding, and they erase the pain of all the bruises, scratches and sore feet we get while traversing the wilderness.
Watch the short video (in French) about the fieldwork our researchers conducted in Taï National Park.