Just as smart watches help humans work out how much calories are burnt during exercise, a new study uses GPS tracking collars fitted with accelerometers to count the calories wild leopards use as they go about their daily business.
The study conducted by a University of California research group placed hi-tech wildlife tracking collars on five leopards in a national park in Kenya.
“What is neat about this new technology is we get these incredible windows into their lives.
"We can now see what they do minute-by-minute.
“Even though they are very cryptic and elusive, we can understand what they are doing,” said study team leader Chris Wilmers, an associate professor at the university.
Conservationists in South Africa believe the technology could provide an insight into local leopard populations and assist in protecting them.
The trackers were placed on the five animals for two months and this group comprised an adult male and female with a cub, and an adult female without cubs.
Also in the study were a one-year-old male cub and a young male in the process of establishing his own territory.
Getting an exclusive peek into these usually shy animals' lives surprised the team.
“I was amazed to see how secretive they actually are.
"For instance, when they would kill goats in these little villages, they would sneak in there in the middle of the night, kill the goat and as fast as they could, with a goat in their mouth, get out of there.
"They would then cross the river until they found a safe place with some trees,” said Wilmers.
What the researchers found was the male leopards used about 26% of their daily caloric intake staking out their territories.
The female with the year-old cub, however, spent only 8% of her calories on parenting.
“Energetics is the ultimate currency for an animal’s survival,” explained Wilmers.
“To survive, an animal needs to balance the calories it expends with the calories it takes in.
"If it wants to reproduce, it has to run on an energetic surplus.”
By understanding how leopards balance their caloric needs, Wilmers believed scientists could work out what influences their drive to kill.
“They might kill more prey, bigger prey, or go after more desirable prey in more dangerous places - closer to humans, for example.”
By establishing where these cats hunt, the researchers believed that they would be able to work out where the animals would hunt and what level of risk they were willing to take to pursue their prey.
“If someone builds a big fence, we can measure the energetic impact that will be on leopards and ultimately understand the reduction and reproductive output that will result from that,” said Wilmers.
In South Africa, as in the rest of Africa, leopards were facing an ever-increasing threat from human encroachment. “As a scientist any bit of new knowledge is important,” said the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation programme manager, David Marneweck.
“A lot of individuals across the globe think we know everything that there is to know about carnivores. However, we quite simply do not.
“From working with carnivores I have realised we know so little about them,” says Marneweck.
However, Nakedi Maputla, of the African Wildlife Foundation, was critical of the study, saying it was too short and did not take into consideration the seasonal factors which would influence a leopard’s access to prey.
“I don’t think they factored in the season.
"In my view they are resource-driven.
“Let’s take, for example, the rainy season. You will find that the prey won't concentrate around one waterhole, and that will determine how an animal will use the landscape.”
This year the Department of Environmental Affairs extended its zero-quota ban on leopard hunting.
This, explained Marneweck, was because data obtained from camera traps suggested that leopard populations inside and outside of protected areas had fallen.
“What I would like to see with such a study is how their movement patterns perhaps differ in human-dominated landscapes versus natural landscapes,” he said.
“I'm excited to see how this technology develops and how they take it to the next phase.”
The next phase for the team from the University of California was to study more large cats and to compare how they use energy on the landscape.
In the future, the leopard research group would like to extend their study and delve further into the everyday lives of one of nature’s most elusive predators.