Unlocking the Mysteries of Wild Cats: The Power of Conservation Tech

By Shannon Dubay and Nikki Le Roex
Program Coordinator; Sabi Sands Leopard Project Coordinator

Leopard viewing in Sabi Sands

Can technology help big cats? Meet Shannon Dubay and Nikki Le Roex, integral members of Panthera South Africa’s team who are pioneering the use of cutting-edge technology in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Together with technology consultant Neoxia, they’ve developed a customized Wildlife Sightings App that’s revolutionizing leopard research and conservation. This innovative tool empowers trained ecotourism guides to meticulously document wildlife activities, providing unprecedented insights into the lives of individual leopards. Join us as we explore how this technology is shedding light on the enigmatic world of these magnificent creatures. 

While wild cats may not be tapping away on smartphones or tablets, they’re certainly reaping the rewards of modern technology. In the expansive Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa, leopards, lions, cheetahs and other wildlife thrive when ecotourism guides diligently document their encounters using the Wildlife Sightings App. Developed exclusively for research purposes, in this protected area, the app serves as a crucial tool exclusively used by trained conservationists. Every time a big cat is seen, its location, behavior and individual ID are recorded, contributing to the creation of a comprehensive life history for every animal. These detailed records form the backbone of Panthera’s Sabi Sands Leopard Project.

Leopard in tree with food

The Sabi Sands Leopard Project 

Ever wondered what goes on in the secretive lives of leopards? Look no further than Panthera’s Sabi Sands Leopard Project — the most comprehensive study on individual leopards worldwide — which gives us significant insight into their mysterious lives. Thanks to a well-protected environment and sensitive game-viewing practices, leopards in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve are relaxed around vehicles and exhibit behaviors rarely witnessed elsewhere. These sightings now yield invaluable scientific insights, courtesy of the Wildlife Sightings App. By transforming casual observations into meticulous scientific data, the app unveils the unique activities of each leopard. For example, records collected over time show that Ntsumi, a female leopard in south of the reserve, has a penchant for hunting young porcupines. Similarly, continuous observations shed light on the territorial arrangements of neighboring male leopards like Nweti and Hanyile. Augmented by DNA extracted from scat samples, these records contribute not only to understanding leopard behavior and ecology but also aid in combatting the trafficking of leopard parts and other key issues affecting their conservation.

Lions in Sabi Sands

A Partnership for Leopards, Lions and Cheetahs 

While Panthera's Conservation Technology team provided the app's foundation, Panthera’s partner, the technology consultancy Neoxia, played a significant role in bringing the app to fruition. Together, Panthera and Neoxia were able to optimize the app’s performance, usability and security to attain high-quality data for subsequent analysis. Each recorded sighting yields a wealth of information, offering deep insights into: 

  • Leopard social dynamics 
  • Movement patterns 
  • Diet 
  • Other critical behavioral aspects 

More recently, the app has been extended to include other species, such as lions, spotted hyenas and cheetahs, shedding light on how leopards interact with these other large carnivores. 

Conservation is inherently interdisciplinary, thriving on collaboration and cooperation. Thanks to this partnership, the Sabi Sands Leopard Project continues to flourish and become even more impactful. The project has already recorded over 100,000 unique leopard sightings. This remarkable dataset is not only deepening our comprehension of leopard behavior but also furnishing vital insights for their management and conservation.

Leopards spotted in Sabi Sands

Critical Conservation for a Species in Crisis 

While leopards are thriving in the Sabi Sands, they are heavily persecuted elsewhere in their range. Habitat fragmentation, human-wildlife conflict and rampant poaching have caused some populations to decline and, in some cases, even disappear. In Southeast Asia, for example, leopards were recently declared functionally extinct in Cambodia. To prevent this from happening in other places, conservation organizations need innovative tools like the Wildlife Sightings App to better understand how we can safeguard these species. 

The new Wildlife Sightings App epitomizes the integration of technology into wild cat conservation efforts, but it is just one of many technological innovations aimed at protecting big cats. Explore other Panthera conservation tools, such as PoacherCams and SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool), to discover the breadth of our conservation technology. With countless wild cat populations still at risk, there's still so much work to be done.