Story transcripts

The Leopard Hunter

Friday, June 5, 2009

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producers: Stephen Taylor, Julia Timms

Back in the 70s, there was a little Melbourne boy with a fascination for very big cats. He was all alone in hospital with just three plastic toys for company, a lion, a tiger and a leopard. From that moment, Luke Hunter was hooked.

Today, he's Doctor Luke Hunter, one of the world's most acclaimed big cat biologists and his great love is the most elusive, the most mysterious of them all. He's studying the secret life of leopards.

Michael Usher joined him on safari to be part of the biggest ever research project of its kind, trying to figure out how these magnificent creatures can co-exist with the greatest predator of all, us.

PHOTOS: Leopard Hunter on safari

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    Full transcript below.

    MICHAEL USHER: For big-cat biologist Luke Hunter and I, bashing through the South African bush late in the afternoon... about to pay off in a big way. Spotting a leopard in the wild is an extraordinary experience.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Have a look Michael, that's about a 6-7 month old cub. You can see the big ears, he hasn't grown into them yet.

    MICHAEL USHER: And today were even luckier because we've stumbled across not one, but two needles in the haystack - two young male leopard cubs. So right now he's about as inquisitive of us as we are of him?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yeah, they're terrific at this age. You know they've never experienced persecution and never been hassled by people. At this age he's not confident enough to come and have a close look at us but he's really curious. So we get these great experiences, where they come out of the thick cover at this time just to have a look at us.

    MICHAEL USHER: This encounter gets better - day turns to night, and the cubs become more adventurous, inching even closer to check us out.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yeah, have a look at him, here he comes, here comes our little fella.

    MICHAEL USHER: We don't see their mum she stays out of sight, but there's no doubt we're being watched. Luke, for you, this is as about as good as it gets, isn't it?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: This is fantastic Michael. I mean this is seeing leopards really in their natural state. You know and this is, I mean this is clearly a wild animal he knows the vehicle a little bit, but it's a big job to work to get towards seeing him. So this is the way leopards behave. This is seeing them in their wild state.

    MICHAEL USHER: Luke Hunter is originally from Melbourne. He now works in New York for the Panthera Organisation, helping all the endangered big cats. But it's here in South Africa, among the leopards, where he's happiest. What is it about the leopard that you admire the most?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: They're a magnificently athletic, supremely adapted cat. You know they really are the sort of archetypal cat, so they're essentially a scaled up version of your domestic cat but more muscular, more powerful, all their senses are tuned obviously to killing for a living.

    MICHAEL USHER: In full flight there's nothing more awesome or deadly than an attacking leopard. They are supreme killing machines. And at rest, there's nothing cuter than a cheeky leopard cub playing with his mum. But even though leopards are the most prosperous of all the cats in Africa,, they're under threat. They're often killed by poachers or hunters. Their natural habitat is in decline and farmers blame them for killing their livestock. They're vulnerable?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yeah, absolutely. They're persecuted by people, they're hunted intensively. Leopards in a number of places have disappeared. We know just in Africa alone, they've lost at least a third of their historic range in pretty recent times.

    MICHAEL USHER: So a good time of the morning to see cats on the move?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Great time of the morning, yeah, the sun's just come up so it's still very cool because of the winter and it means that things like leopards and lions can still be active well into the morning.

    MICHAEL USHER: To save the leopard, Luke needs to find ways man and cat can co-exist. At the spectacular Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, he's in charge of the world's largest leopard study. Through your work you've really become the voice of the leopards, you speak for them, don't you.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: One of their voices I hope, yeah, not the only one. But yeah, absolutely. I think it's really important being the voice to say look here's what it's going to take in terms of good science and good management to make sure that leopards are around for the next generation and the generation beyond.

    MICHAEL USHER: The Phinda Wildlife Reserve is a remarkable conservation success story. The place is teeming with all sorts of big... ..and small animals. But 20 years ago, this was 23,000 hectares of cattle grazing farmland and not much else. It was fenced off, and with the expertise of scientists like Luke Hunter, the natural wildlife was re-introduced. All the animals here, especially the big cats, are doing well.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Now it's an extraordinary place when a couple of years before I went there in the early 1990s, the most common large mammal was cow, were cattle. Now of course there's resident populations of lions and cheetahs and white rhinos and elephants and absolutely everything that historically existed there, up until it was cattle farms and game farms.

    MICHAEL USHER: And that's great news except that while most of the large animals stay within the electrified fences, the leopards don't. Which means they're a headache and a target for neighbouring farmers.

    BERNHARD KOCH: It's a problem. And also threatening my livelihood in a sense, because that's where I make my living from, selling cattle.

    MICHAEL USHER: Cattle farmer Bernhard Koch is a big man with a big view straight into the Phinda reserve.

    BERNHARD KOCH: The leopards, their favourite spot would be at the rock.

    MICHAEL USHER: He's had problems with leopards for years, and in the past has been ruthless.

    BERNHARD KOCH: We got rid of the leopards somehow.

    MICHAEL USHER: Shot the leopards?

    BERNHARD KOCH: Yeah, we shot some and I think one or two were perhaps poisoned, I just told my guys to sort it out.

    MICHAEL USHER: A leopard on the loose can be a real nuisance for a farmer. Already this year, Bernhard's lost six calves, and that's cost him a lot of money. But with Luke's help, this rogue leopard is identified, and in this case, both men agree it should be put down. Are these your leopards do you know?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yeah, and I would say in that situation especially when Bernhard's working really hard to sort of avoid the problems and not just get rid of every leopard, and there is really a problem individual then he's entitled to remove it, I think that's the compromise that has to be made.

    MICHAEL USHER: So you're not some jackboot conservationist who says give us back all the land, the cats and the leopards have got to roam free farmers and villagers you've got to get out of here, we've got to save the cat?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: It wouldn't work, it's just not realistic. We accept that people and livestock are in the landscape but we don't accept that you should just obliterate leopards from that landscape. We want to meet you somewhere in the middle and we believe we can help with that.

    MICHAEL USHER: Thankfully, leopards killing livestock is an isolated problem and back at Phinda, Luke can concentrate on the more rewarding part of his job - counting and tracking as many of the cats as he can. His research aims to find out what they're up to and where they're doing it. Leopards are secretive animals and so pictures from camera traps provide valuable information.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: What's this station like for leopards? Do you get them much?

    RESEARCHER, TRISTAN: There's a big male that comes through here quite often, and a little female that we've been trying to catch, so it's good, we've got lots of frames.

    MICHAEL USHER: They're great photos?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Look they're not going to win any awards Michael, but they're fantastic for us.

    MICHAEL USHER: They tell you so much?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: They tell us so much.

    MICHAEL USHER: It seems everyone at Phinda wants to be a star but after sorting through the happy snaps, Luke finds what he's after - a female leopard whose near-adult cub needs to be caught and fitted with a radio-collar.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Typically we get two years of life out of them which is pretty good and I think sort of justifies going to the effort of catching an animal and putting a collar on because we get really great data from that.

    MICHAEL USHER: It's all very well capturing them on film, but it takes plenty of patience and cunning to capture a leopard in the wild. To nab the young female, Luke's researchers Guy and Tristan set up a maggot-riddled, but leopard-enticing, snare. And while it might look a bit sinister, I can tell you this trap is as gentle on the animal as it can be.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Just ease your left hand in there.

    MICHAEL USHER: So you can't see it, it's completely buried?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: That's right.

    MICHAEL USHER: Very concealed. So stick it in here?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yep, just slowly and it'll go off. (Snare goes)

    MICHAEL USHER: Ok, whoa, geez, there it goes.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: 60 Minutes reporter, safely snared.

    MICHAEL USHER: Leopards are nocturnal and it's late at night when a radio beacon alerts Guy and Tristan the snare has been set off. They quickly dart the animal... ..and let the anaesthetic do its job. The dose is low, so Luke and his team don't have time to muck about. But being this close is amazing. She's got a full belly too, she's had a good feed.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: She's had a good feed today, she's in great nick.

    MICHAEL USHER: This is the 63rd leopard to be caught and collared in the Phinda study. DR

    LUKE HUNTER: Look at the size of them! These are adult teeth now.

    MICHAEL USHER: At 14 months old and close to full size, the cub will soon be leaving the protection of her mother. DR

    LUKE HUNTER: If you've ever come out of anaesthetic, that's what the poor cat must be feeling right now, so, you know, it's a bit confused and miserable.

    MICHAEL USHER: So her new tracking device will give Luke and the team information about how she survives on her own and what human threats she might face. Are you finding new things about them or do you get bored out there in the field?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: I never get bored with it, it's amazing. Just when you think, "OK, I pretty much know what the leopard's going to do this time, "I pretty much know what's going to go on in this population" they'll do something different. (SOUND OF RADIO STATIC, THEN A BEEP) You hear that? she's this direction here?

    MICHAEL USHER: You've picked her up?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yep, that's not bad, that's fairly close.

    MICHAEL USHER: A day after the darting Luke checks in on leopard 63 and we manage a quick glimpse as she walks through the bush. This is a good result?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yeah, isn't that terrific. So you can see now she's got absolutely no effects from the capture operation and she's completely ignoring that collar.

    MICHAEL USHER: It's working well?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yeah, it's working fine. We wouldn't have been able to find her without it of course, crashing through all that bush as we had to do, and that's the beauty of this stuff is now were going to be able to monitor her no matter where she goes.

    MICHAEL USHER: Luke Hunter says of all the big cats, leopards receive the least attention. But he hopes his work will help change that, and help save them. He wants everyone to be able to have encounters in the wild like this with these beautiful cats. Your passion seems to keep on growing?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: I'm really lucky that way. I think it's just, I still just really dig big cats, you know, I just love them. They're a great thing to spend time with.

    MICHAEL USHER: You dig big cats?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: I do, I absolutely do. They're a great critter.

    MICHAEL USHER: Will you follow the leopards until the day you die?

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Day I die. Absolutely, yeah. I hope it's not at the hands of a leopard 'cause that might be a bit rough on the folks, but absolutely. I hope, I hope I drop in the bush one day.

    MICHAEL USHER: Could be more than a bit rough on the folks.

    DR LUKE HUNTER: Yeah, you know, I've told them that if it happens leave the leopard alone it would have been my fault not the leopard's.

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