Understanding leopard conservation with Samual Williams

Samual Williams is a conservation biologist interested in the conservation, ecology, and behavior of large carnivores and primates. You can follow Sam on TwitterInstagram, or find out more about his work at www.samualwilliams.com.

Interest in Carnivore Research 

I kind of fell into carnivores, and in a strange way, I probably have the dire situation in Zimbabwe to thank for that. 

When I found out that it was possible to get paid to live in wild places, doing science and conserving wildlife, I never wanted to do anything else. I did my undergraduate and masters research mainly on primates, because 1) they often live in cool places, and 2) who doesn’t love primates? Then I hit a bit of a wall when it came to Ph.D. funding. I looked for a funded Ph.D. project in mammal conservation that involved fieldwork somewhere interesting, but the going was tough: funding was like unicorn tears and the competition was fierce.

Around two years later I saw an advert for a job working for a small non-profit organization on the conservation of cheetahs and other large carnivores in Zimbabwe. The previous two post holders hadn’t stayed for as long as the employer would have liked, so as an incentive they suggested that the data collected could be used towards a Ph.D. Despite having never worked on carnivores or visited Africa I somehow got the job. 

I quickly realized why the role was challenging, but that probably played a role in thinning out the competition. One reason was that the hyperinflationary economy in Zimbabwe meant that although I became a quadrillionaire (yes that is a thing), my Zimbabwe dollar salary was almost worthless, and at any rate, finding something to spend it on was tough. So I left the country every few months to stock up on food in South Africa. 

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But I loved every minute of working in Zimbabwe, and from that point on I was hooked on carnivores. I love studying animals so badass that they could eat your face, and it doesn’t hurt that (sorry primates) I don’t have to haul out of bed before dawn every morning to do so. Elusive, nocturnal carnivores are often studied by collecting data from camera traps, GPS collar data, tracks, or poo (why are zoologists so fixated on poo?) rather than direct observations, which is a much better fit for me. I am not a morning person.

I am now based in South Africa doing a postdoc on carnivore conservation in the Department of Zoology at the University of Venda. My work focusses on how carnivores can help people and how we people can help carnivores. 

Most Exciting Research Project?

I used to coordinate the Primate and Predator Project in the Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa run by Durham University in the UK. That was probably the most exciting project because it was so varied and so rewarding. From camera trapping leopards and GPS collaring hyaenas, through to helping to de-snare wounded animals and working with communities to help reduce human-wildlife conflict, there was rarely a dull moment. 

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What Proportion of your Research Involves Fieldwork?

For my postdoc, which I have been doing for the past 9 months or so, I spend most of my time analyzing data and writing papers. But just before that I spent five years at the Primate and Predator Project, and that was pretty much 100% fieldwork. My wife Katy (and later also our son Finn) lived in a 5m x 5m solar powered tent on a wildlife reserve in the mountains in South Africa for 5 years. It was amazing. 

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The Process of a Leopard Fieldwork Experiment 

Taking this study as an example, the project Principal Investigator (PI) Russell Hill, who is based in the UK, decided that our project should estimate the population trends of leopards in the Soutpansberg Mountains in South Africa using camera trap data. He sent 50 camera traps over, and it was my job to deploy the camera traps in the field and maintain them for what ended up being around five years. Our research assistants would then manually tag each image collected with the species, and the individual identity of any leopards photographed, which generated the data that I analyzed. 

As part of this study, we also collared leopards to determine the most important sources of mortality. So the PI sent collars over, and it was my job to catch the and collar the leopards (with a vet), and download and analyze the data. This sounds more glamorous than it was. It involved a lot more maggot-ridden calf fetuses (used for bait) than leopards, but you get used to it. 

I really loved the applied side of this too. As a result of our findings, we hired a Community Engagement Officer, who works to make it easier for the local community to live with the leopards in the area, rather than resorting to killing them. 

Favorite and the Least Favorite Thing About Your Work?

Favorite things: I get to do what I love. I live in the bush, using science to answer questions about carnivore conservation & ecology. And I love the idea that what I do can benefit wildlife. 

Least favorite things: Conservation at times can feel like an uphill battle. You can spend years studying an animal, only for it to die a painful and avoidable death. The pay is often brutal – I would probably be in a much more viable financial position if I flipped burgers in MacDonalds. And job security could be better. 

The highs are amazing but equally the lows can be a struggle. Take this week as an example: I had a great fieldwork session studying serval conservation ecology, I had one paper published, two papers accepted, and I submitted another paper. But I was also informed that rather than having another two years of employment to look forward, I would unexpectedly lose my job in six weeks. Africa really knows how to throw a curveball at you. 

Common Public Misconceptions About Conservation Biology 

Conservation is all about cuddling animals. As a carnivore conservation biologist, I almost never see my study animals with my own eyes, let alone pet them – almost all of my animal data is collected remotely. 

People that support conservation often really enjoy making a close personal connection with animals, which I completely understand. But I see so much effort and funding being diverted into programmes that tout their conservation benefits, but they do a much better job of creating situations in which volunteers can interact directly with animals than creating genuine in situ conservation benefits. Conservation is normally not that glamorous. I spend so much more of my time with maggots and mathematics than with mammals. But that’s all part of the fun.

If you enjoyed this post why not give Sam a follow on TwitterInstagram, or find out more about his work at www.samualwilliams.com.


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