My PhD research was on the spatial, dispersal and landscape ecology of leopard Panthera pardus at UKZN, in collaboration with Panthera under the co-supervision of Rob Slotow, Luke Hunter, Guy Balme and Hugh Robinson. Following conservation interventions implemented in 2005 in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa the leopard population density increased on Phinda Game Reserve. I tested how this possibly affected the social organisation patterns of adults, and the emigration rates and general dispersal patterns of the subadults. I spent the first two and a half years of my PhD living in a small house in the bush on Phinda. My main activity in the field was to radio-track leopards daily, and try and keep tabs on dispersing subadults.
Analysing the whole 11-year telemetry data set of the Panthera's MunYaWana Leopard Project, I demonstrated that as leopard density increased, female home range size and inter-annual fidelity in home range use decreased, and females formed matrilineal kin clusters. In contrast, males maintained large home ranges, and did not track female home range contraction. Spacing dynamics in adult leopards was consistent with sex-specific dispersal strategies, as subadult females remained philopatric, while male dispersal rates and distances increased. I also recorded the longest dispersal event in leopards to date - c. 350 km through three countries. Such long-distance dispersal events can have tremendous implications for population linkage if they are successful. I demonstrated that functional connectivity corresponds to structural connectivity; that is subadult leopards favoured adult suitable habitats for dispersal movement through the landscape. Marginal habitat may therefore not be sufficient to provide functional landscape connectivity to leopards.
After my PhD, I visited Mark Hebblewhite's lab at the University of Montana, USA for six months to work on landscape connectivity modelling in several large felid species in tight collaboration with Hugh Robinson of the Panthera's GIS lab. I also collaborated with Ross Pitman during his PhD at UKZN on assessing the conservation costs of the game ranching industry and on modelling habitat suitability and landscape connectivity for leopards in the Limpopo Province, South Africa as part of a Panthera project.