On September 10th, WildFutures Research Assistant, Alexa Boesel, interviewed Dr. Quinton Martins.
WildFutures will be hosting Dr. Martins with Dr. Winston Vickers in a free webinar on September 20th. Register here.
Alexa: As I understand, you started studying large carnivores with Cape Leopards in South Africa. How did you get into working with cats?
Quinton: I started out working as a specialist guide in the photographic safari industry. I really had my first intimate experience working with leopards in 1993 while tracking these incredibly elusive and majestic cats on foot with highly skilled local Shangaan trackers. This is really what got my connected with leopards and has left an indelible impression on me. In these vast wilderness areas, we were fortunate enough to observe the natural behavior of wild leopards – watching them hunt, mate, play, as well as learn more about all the inter and intra-specific interactions they engage in. Of all the cats, leopards really stood out to me as my favorite cats. I worked in the safari industry till returning to the University of Cape Town in 2000 to read for a BSc degree in zoology. After completing my degree I launched a study on the mountain leopards found in the Cederberg Mountains. Here, leopard tracks would be seen, but these ghost-like creatures were seldom observed, and little was known about them, making it an exciting, yet tremendous challenge for me. Soon after beginning my study I learnt that leopards were regularly persecuted by farmers due to leopard-livestock conflict. This inspired me to start a non-profit, the Cape Leopard Trust which I ran for 11 years and ended up getting a PhD on these enigmatic mountain leopards.
Alexa: Over those years studying leopards were there any surprises? Something you hadn’t expected in your findings or your observations?
Quinton: Cape Leopards were proportionally quite similar to leopards elsewhere in Africa, yet significantly smaller from a mass perspective. I had always heard mountain leopards in SA were small, but couldn’t believe seeing healthy males in the Cape weighing 26-34kg, compared to male leopards in the bush weighing 65-75kg. We assumed this was due to genetic differentiation but when we ran studies, found that they would not be considered a subspecies. Although indications of genetic sub-populations existed, most of the difference in size was attributed to their diet predominantly made up of smaller mammals such as rock hyrax or dassie (a marmot-like creature) of about 3kg or small antelope less than 14kg.
I was amazed at how elusive the Cape leopards were. Because the areas I was studying were so remote, I hiked and trekked for 11 years to learn more about these creatures. It took me a year to see my first leopard in the wild. Not taking into account the almost 50 leopard captures I had, I only had the fortune of 8 wild sightings of Cape leopards in 11 years. For me, the difficulty of finding them was not disheartening but rather somewhat exciting. Knowing they were there, probably watching me many times, made the mountains feel special and mysterious. I loved knowing that they could survive nearly undetected.
One of the cool things about the project was having a tangible impact on limiting loss of leopards through depredation permits. Despite being a protected animal in the Cape (as with lions in Califoria), the biggest threat to leopards were having them killed through depredation permits. In the Cape, I worked hard to ensure existing guidelines for depredation permits were followed, as well as providing scientific input to see positive changes were made. Unlike California, the guidelines for the issuing of a depredation permit put the responsibility solely on the landowner, ensuring they take adequate precautions to protect their livestock. Failing that, a permit to kill a leopard for loss of livestock would not be issued. In my study area an average of 8 leopards were being killed a year when I started. Our work contributed to zero depredation permits being issued in my study area in 10 years. Consequently, the largest source of leopard mortality was due to intra-specific interactions and resulting infanticide all documented through our GPS collared cats.
Alexa: Obviously leopards and mountain lions are both from the cat family, but what similarities or differences have you found in your research with these two species that you didn’t expect?
Quinton: One of the things that I found intriguing was how timid mountain lions are compared to leopards. Put in a difficult situation, leopards are extremely aggressive and dangerous to people whereas mountain lions are far more likely to retreat than attack despite being very capable and large predators. One of the similarities between the two cats relates to habitat selection, or how important it is for them to have access to very specific types of habitat. They appear to have preferences within larger ecosystems for very specifics areas, such as areas with sufficient cover while avoiding open areas to a large degree. With our leopards, they selected very much for rugged, rough rocky terrain where there was some form of easy escape. They avoided open areas even if there was good prey availability and vegetation cover. For both species, this may partially be attributed to a link to the past where they shared their landscapes with bigger, more dangerous competing predators that preferred those open areas. Our leopards also had no trees to hoist their prey into to get away from larger predators. As a biologist, you get to a point where you understand what they prefer. When I trek, I have got to know where to put cameras and bait for traps based on these preferences.
Another cross- continental similarity I found has been related to trapping these cats. For our mountain leopards, I used un-baited, walk-through double door cages placed on a well-used path to capture our cats – the trap our be set to be like a tunnel they would walk through, setting the trap off once in the middle of the trap. When I came to the states, I was perplexed as to why this had never been tried with mountain lions. So, with the help of an engineer Neil Martin, I designed a new fully electronic walk-through cage using ultrasonic sensors that measured an animals height, to trigger the trap, and at the same time, avoid by-catch. It has worked wonderfully! However, going into dart a mountain lion versus a leopard once caught, is completely different. Leopards wait until you get close and then charge at you with all their might whereas mountain lions tend to want to get away from you. These are very different beasts!
Alexa: What have been your personal challenges studying these cats? What has been most rewarding?
Quinton: I suppose one of the challenges with studying mountain lions in the Bay Area is that we aren’t studying them in complete wilderness. That said! Studying leopards in wilderness, carrying 200+ pound cages miles into the mountains was physically exhausting and arduous. In California, a difficulty is the high degree of fragmentation. We can track our mountain lions using their GPS data, but often can’t get to them real time due to difficulties in obtaining access to the private land parcel they are on in time. One of our males now who has a range of ~250sq.miles covers 17,000 private land parcels. Females typically cover 8,000 land parcels. Trying to access these properties is a real challenge. In areas with high human density, where these mountain lions live, no matter how good your outreach is, it seems unlikely to be able to reach everyone, much less convince everyone to protect their livestock and pets. The result of that is there is a constant and almost unavoidable threat of these cats being taken out with legal depredation permits. One of the biggest challenges is balancing outreach while trying to affect changes in legislation and policy which would aid efforts in trying to protect animals in these areas. Policy changes and changes in the current legislation are essential if we are to see lions protected properly. This combined with public outreach and education will be the only way to positively contribute to the conservation of mountain lions.
What’s most rewarding? I suppose seeing tangible changes in our community through our efforts. Seeing members of our community becoming more aware of the importance of mountain lions in our environment. Seeing how more and more people as they become aware, see the need for us to coexist with wildlife. I love getting stopped in my truck (which now has prominent Living with Lions signage) and people asking, “how is P1 doing?” or “how are the kittens doing?” These are their lions! And the emotional, knee-jerk, and mostly senseless action of killing a depredating lion when conflict occurs, affects all of these people without them having a say it. I am pleased that more people are starting to realize the importance of the ripple effects our perturbations cause in these delicate ecosystems.
Alexa: What would you tell people when they ask what they can do to conserve and protect mountain lions?
Quinton: First, I would tell people it’s very important to know that the killing and removal of any “normal” and healthy mountain lion makes no sense and is of no benefit to them or the people living in that cat’s range. Furthermore, it is quite plausible to say this removal will likely negatively impact them and their environment. If people want to conserve these animals, they need to understand why they are doing it. It doesn’t matter if the mountain lion population is threatened or not, but rather that removing them doesn’t do any good because removals are not solving the underlying issues which will simply continue unless addressed properly. If left to their own devices, conserving lions should not lead to overpopulation of these cats who, given the opportunity, self-regulate their populations to a large degree in areas where they are the top predator. Landowners need to take responsibility for looking after their pets or livestock. Our research findings show that all our collared cats kill pets and livestock. It’s not abnormal or aberrant behavior. Removing one of these cats won’t change the fact that the next mountain lion replacing the one killed will do the same thing given the opportunity of preying on unprotected domesticated animals. The only thing that will change lion behavior is ensuring that pets and livestock are unavailable to mountain lions, forcing them to focus on their primary prey (which in our area of California is deer).
Depending on where you live and whether you are a commercial stock farmer or keep a few animals as a non-commercial enterprise, the strategy for protecting livestock differs. For landowners with pets or a dozen or so livestock or less, it is easiest and most effective keeping your animals inside at night, in a barn or in your home. Don’t let your animals out early in the morning or in the evening near a creek or somewhere else that mountain lions tend to travel. Alternate the use of some deterrent devices like having a radio on, or a good sized donkey or Llama present. If you have a big herd of livestock, the solutions are more complex and differ depending on the breed of livestock and the landscape you are farming in. Livestock guardian dogs may very well be the best solution in these cases. Our biggest concerns in the southern part of our Bay Area study are not commercial livestock farmers though, rather landowners with pet cats or a handful of “hobby” or pet goats or sheep – most of these landowners have structures which could be used or easily modified to be used to house their animals in a predator-free environment. They need to do this, and if they do not and they lose an animal to a predator, there should be no recourse to have the offending animal killed.
Alexa: Is there anything else you would like to share about your work?
Quinton: Mountain lions are a great ambassador species for habitat conservation because they are so far ranging and their needs to a large degree require the presence of a functioning ecosystem. Thus, by protecting mountain lions, we are inadvertently working towards broad habitat conservation. I think that mountain lions are a great symbol to connect people to nature. Like in the Cederberg with leopards, they represent a wildness that we are still fortunate to have. With mountain lions it is great to know that statistically they are known to be an insignificant threat to humans and thus are relatively easy to coexist with as long as we protect our pets and livestock. I hope that people understand that supporting the kind of research and work that we are doing is kind of like investing in a form of Life Insurance. Our lives depend on the protection of our natural resources, without which, the degradation of our planet will be hastened, and in 30 or 50 years’ time we will be fighting for clean air and water just to survive.
On September 3rd, WildFutures Research Assistant, Alexa Boesel, interviewed Dr. Winston Vickers.
WildFutures will be hosting Dr. Winston Vickers and Dr. Quinton Martins in a free webinar on September 20th. Register here.
Alexa: You have been studying mountain lions in California for a very long time. What inspired you to first start working with them?
Winston: I started in 2002 when I went back to UC Davis to get a Master of Preventive Veterinary Medicine degree, focusing on wildlife population health and ecology, and anticipated doing my thesis in mountain lion health. I was spurred by an interest in large cats and carnivores and had assisted in some research in snow leopards, which I considered studying longer term. My wife and I had assisted an Earthwatch-funded snow leopard research project in Nepal with two PhD students. They studied non-invasively with cameras and tracking, particularly looking at predator-prey dynamics. However when I began my studies, mountain lions were the most locally available large cat in California (and North America for that matter) and UC Davis had an ongoing study in mountain lions, and thus they became the focus of my work.
I had started veterinary medicine with an interest in wildlife, with a preceptorship at the Oklahoma Zoo and then worked in a mixed animal hospital in rural North Arkansas. Then, I moved to California where I worked at a small animal and exotic pet hospital, occasionally working with wildlife.
Alexa: As a veterinarian, what are the most common diseases you see facing wild felids? And mountain lions specifically?
Winston: Being predators, mountain lions face a lot of diseases, as well as toxins, that their prey are exposed to. One example is Salmonella, which one lion in our study area died of. Another died of Valley Fever, or coccidioidomycosis, which humans can get in dry arid ecosystems. Our collaborators at Colorado State also study Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, or FIV, and other lentiviruses in domestic cats, wild bobcats, and mountain lions. Each of those species has their own strains of FIV, but our collaborators at Colorado State have detected a bobcat strain in mountain lions with unknown implications for the health of infected mountain lions.
We have seen Feline Leukhemia virus (FelV) in a mountain lion which may have contributed to its death. We have also documented antibodies to plague in the mountain lion population, meaning the animals had been exposed to that disease agent. None of our study animals have died of that disease to our knowledge, but that has occurred in other areas of the west. That is the same organism that infects humans occasionally in the western US and can be fatal. We presume mountain lions are usually exposed to this bacterial infection via rodents or other predators such as coyotes that mountain lions eat.
To date, we have not documented any major population effects from any particular disease, or any epidemics, but we are always watching for it. In one portion of our study area, we had a cluster of deaths from an unknown cause, but we suspected were due to an infectious agent of some kind, but we were unable to find a source.
Most deaths that we see are from car strikes, depredation permits and poaching. We certainly consider these in epidemiology studies. They provide an un-“natural” source of death, adding undue pressures to the populations that we study. Many of our populations are separated by highways, reducing gene flow, so genetic inbreeding and the potential for inbreeding depression and reduced reproduction also worry us a lot.
Alexa: What have been your personal challenges studying mountain lions? What has been most rewarding?
Winston: My personal challenges are primarily the difficulties of the actual work, and of funding the work. The work is physically challenging. In order to capture a mountain lion in cage traps which is our primary method, we do a lot of hiking beforehand to find out via tracking and trail cameras where lion movement is occurring. We bring in road killed deer as bait, sometimes carrying them long distances, and also carry in traps. We primarily capture at night, drive for many hours, and miss a fair amount of sleep. Getting funding is also challenging. The longest grants for projects are usually no more than 2-3 years, meaning that we are always on the search for more. Our equipment and time spent are expensive, with trucks, tracking collars, cameras, biologist salaries, etc., so grant money often doesn’t go as far as we would like.
However, the cumulative effects of our research has been immensely rewarding. Over the years, the research that we produced has affected public policy, making a difference for wildlife. We didn’t know much when we first started researching mountain lions. We were unsure there was anything wrong. One of the first things we found, is that there were many causes of premature death. Due to our research and research like it, we have made strides to reduce those premature deaths, documenting roadkill and depredation kill hot spots, increasing fencing along roadsides, reducing roadkill (including deer) which helps decrease overall car damage and money spent on repairs and increases human safety. We have documented the negative impacts of roads on mountain lion ecology, and therefore are making strides to reduce barrier effect of roads and genetic isolation.
To reduce deaths due to depredation permits, we have started to do a lot of work to educate owners of small livestock like goats, especially those who have just a few animals and who have the best potential for reducing the risks by bringing their animals into enclosures at night. Working with the Mountain Lion Foundation, 4H clubs, and the UC Agricultural Extension program we are trying to educate people who live in mountain lion habitat on ways to reduce risks to their animals from mountain lions and other predators. The key is proper husbandry, which is important for kids to learn, thus the focus on working with 4-H.
Alexa: What do you think is needed to coexist with these large carnivores if they are to have a future in the Bay Area?
Winston: The Bay Area and Southern California have a lot in common in that they are highly barriered areas with miles of roads and housing developments and a lot of mix between rural and urban areas. In areas like Sonoma there are a lot of owners of small livestock that when not properly protected can be killed by mountain lions, coyotes and bobcats, That can then result in the wild animal being killed.
A big part of the solution is educating people, and getting them to think about wildlife in their life. When people begin to consider wildlife, it drives public will, which then forces public policy and eventually, regulates individual behavior as it relates to wildlife. Essentially its an ask, to vote for wildlife, and elevate wildlife’s overall status in the ladder of importance, including politically.
Another important aspect of our work is helping people appreciate the vital role that large carnivores play in the ecosystem. If they were allowed to disappear, it would change the landscape irrevocably, in a way that humans probably wouldn’t like.
Alexa: Is there anything else you would like to share about your work?
Winston: I will mention that some of my work is with the Institute for Wildlife Studies in northeastern California in a much more rural area, which provides an opportunity for comparison between the two types of habitats. In northeastern California, with less roads and more livestock, the primary cause of death we are seeing is from depredation permits.
As you can imagine, in populations far from any humans that are not hunted for sport, the primary reason for death would likely be intraspecific strife, or lions killing lions in competition for territory or mates. Interestingly, in the Santa Monica Mountains in southern California, in an area where there are certainly also mortalities from depredation permits and car strikes, the National Park Service researchers there have also documented intraspecific strife (mountain lions killing other mountain lions) as a significant source of mortality. The reasons for this are unclear.
I think work like Quinton’s and mine allows us to see the scope of challenges that mountain lions living alongside humans are facing, and try to make some difference in their chances of long term persistence on the landscape that we humans are constantly altering.