Johannesburg - It’s two minutes past midnight and a cool 11ºC outside when the leopard flits into view, moving into a cave obscured by scraggly bush. It’s almost like an invitation to follow it.
Four years after his camera traps captured the image of this leopard roaming through the Cradle of Humankind, Dr Brian Kuhn still feels the skin on the back of his neck prickle when he views it.
Until this shot, Kuhn, who runs the Urban Hyena Research Project, had only ever captured images of black-backed jackals and honey badgers. Then came the leopard.
More surprises were in store. Soon, Kuhn would come face-to-face with images of one of nature’s shiest citizens – the brown hyena. “This is one of the places we’ve had fresh hyena spoor,” says Kuhn from the Kloofendal Nature Reserve, in the heart of suburban Roodepoort.
“For all we know, there is a hyena clan right there,” he says, pointing to an overhead koppie. “But we just don’t know where their dens are. They’re transient animals.”
In the past six years, Kuhn has deployed his motion-sensor activated camera traps at more than 12 sites in the Cradle, placing them on tree trunks and branches hanging into caves at the Malapa and the John Nash nature reserves – and on unprotected land. The latter has revealed surprising images of brown hyena, serval and porcupines.
Kuhn’s research is now providing a rare glimpse into the nocturnal jaunts of the major carnivores and smaller mammals living on the outskirts of Joburg.
He has lost one camera to a hyena which tore it to pieces, and another to a baboon, which shoved its finger through the motion sensor.
As with the elusive leopards, it’s the survival of the local brown hyena population, listed as near-threatened, that continues to intrigue him. Mystery surrounds their existence but fossil records show they have survived on the Highveld for 2 million years.
“They possess an incredible ability to adapt, and survive, despite persistent human encroachment and lingering persecution.”
And as humankind swallows more and more previously wild spaces, scavengers like hyenas are moving into urban neighbourhoods to find their dinner.
“Hyenas in urban areas are more common than most people realise,” points out Kuhn, a palaeozoology researcher at Wits University, who hails from the US. “They venture into neighbourhoods more often than you think. I’ve seen tracks and droppings in Kloofendal and they can easily get out of the fences there into the suburbs.”
In a single night, a hyena can move 60km in search of food. Kuhn says the animals routinely cut through the rocky Constantia Kloof region and feast on dustbins in Krugersdorp, where locals report regular sightings.
“This region is designed for them. We live in one of the greenest areas in the world. You can go from the Cradle of Humankind to Soweto and the only time you will not be in a green area is when you’re crossing the roads.”
Kuhn believes there are fewer than a handful of leopard in the Cradle because they span large territories. “I know of one big male, (weighing) 65kg, who died recently in a snare. There have been sightings in Little Falls and in the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens.
“But I think there are 11 hyena because we’ve identified 11 distinct patterns in the leg stripes, but again we’re not 100 percent sure. There are so many huge, massive questions about these populations.”
In the soft cover of twilight and in the early morning hours, hyenas and leopards move stealthily, their paws treading softly on the city streets, as they navigate neighbourhoods, and cross deserted roads.
“You think you have to drive 600km to the Kruger to see a wild animal? They are actually in your backyard,” says Kuhn. “It’s rarer to see a brown hyena in the Kruger than it is in these areas. If you see one, take a photo of it and move on. Consider yourself lucky you saw this animal.”
By day, Kuhn studies fossil carnivores unearthed in the Cradle of Humankind. By night, he downloads his images, tracing his “bent” for the much-maligned hyena to his early years. He has researched five striped hyena clans on the outskirts of Jordan. “They were living right under the noses of local people who never even knew they were so close.”
Kuhn’s paper, A Preliminary Assessment of the Carnivore Community Outside Johannesburg SA, is about to be published in the South African Journal of Wildlife Research, and in it, he writes how the Cradle of Humankind is well-known for its numerous fossil sites, but little is known about its current carnivore diversity.
“On the fringe of one of the largest human populations in South Africa, exists a wide variety of carnivores that appear to be surviving despite no known conservation efforts.
“Unlike lions and spotted hyenas, which today are considered conservation dependent, the species are surviving in the face of human encroachment, intervention and possible persecution,” he writes.
In the US, black bear, cougar, coyote and bobcat have all been documented in and around large urban populations, but here, little has been published about peri-urban leopards and brown hyenas.
He wonders about the population density of these carnivores, the size of their home ranges. And most importantly how to conserve them.
Brown hyena populations have been studied in the Kalahari and near the Skeleton Coast. In the Cradle, they have created a third biome, where other major carnivores like lion and spotted hyena have been driven out.
There have long been reports of hyenas in suburbia. A brown hyena was shot in Allen’s Nek in Roodepoort over 20 years ago, while another was caught near Gilooley’s Interchange more than a decade ago.
But nothing shone the spotlight on the urban brown hyena more than Juno, the juvenile who wandered into the city after being separated from her mother last September. Panicked, she was chased through the suburbs and finally darted in Blairgowrie. Her paws were shredded from the tarmac.
The youngster could not be reunited with her clan because conservationists like Kuhn couldn’t find the location of their den, believed to be on the West Rand.
Juno is now on a protected nature reserve in the North West but Kuhn worries about her future with its resident hyena clans. And he reserves his blame for Juno’s fate on those who doggedly pursued her through the city by car.
“What happened to Juno was the worst-case scenario. People worsened the situation by chasing her. You don’t go chasing a hyena down the street and putting it on Twitter. That’s ignorant.”
There have been unconfirmed sightings, too, of leopard on the West Rand over the years. In 2012, a male was found dead on Hendrik Potgieter Road. There was only a single maggoty roadkill in his stomach, and he was diseased. Experts like Kuhn believe he probably dispersed out of the Cradle to carve out his own territory.
There is little potential for conflict with our wild neighbours, Kuhn believes.
“There is no danger. These animals are experts at avoiding humankind. They have learnt to survive with us over thousands of years. Why can’t we survive with them and co-exist?
“Obviously leopard, caracal, and jackal are consummate hunters but they are most likely hunting rabbits and hares. I don’t see them as a major threat to people.
“Hyenas are foragers and scavengers and don’t kill anything big. They just scavenge in your dustbins. These animals are more afraid of us, and unless they’re threatened or cornered, they are no danger to us.”
He dreams of raising the funds to fit satellite radio collars to track the hyenas and leopards and document their movements into the city. But his research is conducted on a shoestring budget, and when he applies for funding for urban carnivores, doors are slammed in his face.
“These animals are not ‘sexy’ and so no one wants to fund them. But we basically don’t know anything about them.
“We know they’re there and that they’re breeding successfully because there are multiple juveniles. We know they’re skirting the urban environment most of the time quite successfully.
“At the moment, they’re fine because they are using the green belts, and they can navigate the city and avoid people.
“But every month you look at areas like the West Rand and there are more developments going up. The green belts are getting smaller. It won’t be long before they have no place to go, unless something changes and land is set aside and conserved for these animals.” - Saturday Star