Malaysian leopard project colleagues before entering to the stury site (Photo: A. Sanei)
Introduction: Tropical rain forests of South‐east Asia have been exposed to severe and rapid deforestations and in many tropical regions, rain forest has been restricted to small and isolated fragments (Catullo et al., 2008; Matthews, 2001). Therefore, many species have been forced into small and isolated populations because of destruction and fragmentation of their habitats. Although studies show that large vertebrates can persist for decades in a fragmented forest (Turner & Corlett, 1996), generally these populations face considerable risk as a result of environmental variation, demographic stochastic and reduced genetic diversity (Knaepkens et al., 2004). The consequences of reduction in forest size cannot always be perfectly predicted. However, these changes would result in alteration of ecological factors such as predator‐prey interactions, competition and availability of food resources (Anderson, 1999).
Leopards (Panthera pardus) are well known to be the most adaptable species of big cats, which can live in a wide variety of climates and habitat types (Beer et al., 2005, Alderton, 2002). They have been also reported frequently from urban areas (e.g. Sanei, 2007; Edgaonkar & Chellam, 2002; Ramakrishnan, et al., 1999; Edgaonkar & Chellam, 1998). Although the species is resistant to human pressure, their presence in an area does not imply that a viable population is existed there (Hunter et al., 2003). Without having a research‐based conservation plan in the region, the remaining leopard population would face an uncertain future (Rabinowitz, 1989; Weber & Rabinowitz, 1996). This study is a new attempt to describe leopard status in a highly fragmented forest which may be used as example to many more small patches of leopard habitats in the tropical rain forests of the South-east Asia due to severe deforestations in the past few decades.
Background: Very little is known about the leopard in Malaysian tropical rain forests, particularly in human‐dominated environments where only patches of its habitats have remained (Azlan & Sharma, 2006; Kawanishi, 2002; Krau Wildlife Reserve Management plan, 2001). Present study has been conducted in Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve, a fragmented forest within the fastest growing urban agglomeration in Peninsular Malaysia. Much rapid developments have taken place in the great Kuala Lumpur (KlangValley) during the last 30 to 40 years (Ng, 2007; Lim Meng et al., 2000). Alienation of forested lands following by rapid changes in the Klang Valley has led to environmental degradation and loss of valuable genetic resources of plants and wildlife (Faridah Hanum et al., 2001). Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve is one of few remaining forests in this region and it has lost almost 68% of its area within 14 years from 1983 to 1997 (Awang Noor et al., 2007).
Scientific data increasingly indicate that large carnivores play an important role in ecological health of ecosystems (Miller et al., 2001). Elimination of the top predator of any habitat would have substantial impact on the abundance of the herbivore species. In such ecosystems usually one or two species become dominant in the community and therefore, it will cause changes in the vegetation structure of the relative habitat (Eisenberg, 1989). These changes will lead to dramatic declines in biological resources of the ecosystem. Viability of leopard population as top predator of this fragmented forest is uncertain and needs serious consideration. To determine the viability of the population, ecological knowledge of the species such as demographic data and spatial arrangement of individuals in the habitat are essential. Population ecology of leopards, availability of their potential prey species and understanding the responses of leopards and their preys to anthropogenic stressors, form a basis for designing an effective management plan (Nicholson & Van Manen, 2009; Wang & Macdonald, 2009; Witmer, 2005). Therefore, the main objectives of this study were to estimate (i) leopard population size, (ii) detection and occupancy probabilities of the leopard and priori known potential leopard prey species in the study area, (iii) effects of human and natural factors on occupancy status of leopards and their priori identified prey species and (iv) to investigate the existence of any unknown potential prey species in the study area.
Findings: Wild boar was recognized as the main prey species of leopards in the study area followed by monkeys and mouse deers. The area was completely occupied by these species and there was no evidence of lack of prey sufficiency in this logged over and isolated secondary tropical rain forest. Results of these studies support the fact that even though ungulates are expected to be rare in tropical rain forests, this situation may change in fragmented and disturbed habitats. Exceptionally high density of prey species in fragmented forests, particularly wild boar, has been reported previously from a lowland dipterocarp rain forest (Pasoh Forest Reserve, Negeri Sembilan) in Peninsular Malaysia (Ickes, 2001).
Single-season occupancy models developed from detection/non-detection data signified that although the whole area is occupied by leopards, presence/absence of wild boar and settlement status are the principle factors affecting leopard movements. Jacob’s preference index demonstrates leopards prefer forest rather than more open areas in the vicinity. The research revealed that presence of stray dogs in the area was disturbing for leopards as the study showed that leopards avoided their grouping life style. Probability of detection of leopards in most of sampling occasions was lower than 50%.
Wild boar and macaque species were mostly affected by construction activities while lesser mouse deer was mainly affected by deforestation. It is worth mentioning that Detection probabilities through camera trapping were significantly lower than probability of detections via indirect signs and direct observations.
Our Study revealed a density estimate as high as 28.35 leopards/100 km². This is one of the highest leopard densities ever recorded, comparable with 23.6 leopards/100 km2 in Rhodes Matopos National Park (Zimbabwe), 23.8 leopards/100 km2 in Londolozi Game Reserve (South Africa) and 41.7 leopards/100 km2 in Sanjay Gandhi National Park (India) (Edgaonkar & Chellam, 1998; Marker & Dickman, 2005; Stander et al., 1997). It is suggested that as a result of rapid shrinking and highly fragmentation of the forest, these leopards were trapped in the study area. Therefore, leopard density might be unexpectedly high. The leopard has generally been considered as one of the most solitary mammals, hence living at high densities is an intriguing sign of adaptability of this species, especially in the case of the study area located within the suburbs of multimillion city of Kuala Lumpur.
The main factors threatening leopard’s survival in Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve were recognized as (i) highly isolation of the forest, (ii) small size of the habitat to support current population size of leopard, (iii) presence of active human disturbances inside the forest, (iv) uncertain reproduction status of the existing population and (v) possible genetic depression following successive inbreeding. Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve represents the vestige of rich biodiversity within the densely populated Klang Valley. Results of this study could be used to develop a sustainable conservation and environmentally friendly forest management plan using the leopard as the top flagship.
Malaysian Leopard Library
Sanei, A. and Zakaria, M. 2009. Malayan leopard project progress report, University Putra Malaysia, Malaysia.
Kawanishi et al. 2010. Near fixation of melanism in leopards of the Malay Peninsula. Journal of Zoology 282 (3): 201-206.
Sanei, A. 2010. Population size and occupancy status of the leopard (Panthera pardus L.) in a secondary forest of the Ayer Hitam Reserve, Selangor. Master Thesis, University Putra Malaysia, Malaysia.
Sanei, A., Zakaria, M., Yusof, E., Roslan, M. (2011) Estimation of leopard population size in a secondary forest within Malaysia’s capital agglomeration using unsupervised classification of pugmarks Tropical Ecology 52: 2. 209-217.
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