Leopard in Northern Cape Conservation Area Saved

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A big male leopard, described as "the most beautiful cat in the Cape", has used several of its nine lives after being caught in a gin trap and then becoming trapped on a narrow ledge high on a cliff face with the device firmly clamped to its paw.

But the leopard has been saved, thanks to intervention by the Northern Cape nature conservation service, the Cape Leopard Trust and a vet.

It was released unharmed - save for a bruised ego and foot - back into its home range in the Hantam mountains near Calvinia after a rescue described as "epic".

A concerted effort is under way to persuade farmers in the region to adopt more environmentally friendly methods of dealing with predators like leopards and caracal that sometimes attack their stock.

Quinton Martins, project manager of the trust, which has done a substantial amount of work in the Cederberg area, said he had been called by Northern Cape nature conservation official Leon Muller on Monday evening to assist "in what sounded like an impossible mission" - a leopard caught in a gin trap on a cliff on the top of the Hantam mountains.

"To make matters worse, the trap's anchor had been dislodged, making it extremely dangerous to approach this wounded animal."

Martins called on long-time colleagues Jaco van Deventer of CapeNature and vet Dr Andre van der Merwe to help.

After a long hike to the foot of the cliffs, they caught a glimpse of the leopard trying to hide on a rocky ledge near the top of the mountain.

"It was obvious that approaching the leopard on foot on the same ledge would be suicidal," Martins said.

So he and Van Deventer, carrying a tranquillising rifle prepared by Van der Merwe and a shotgun for emergencies, set off on another long hike to the top of the mountain, guided by farmworkers, to try to get to the leopard from above.

Finally, almost eight hours after setting out, Van Deventer was able to fire a dart into the rump of the leopard. But they had to find out whether it was sedated.

"We climbed down and walked in - shotgun in front, dart-gun behind. This sort of thing adds 10 years to your life. A wounded leopard is one of the most dangerous animals you can encounter, and this was a large male in a difficult place."

Eventually, they managed to see the animal. It was much larger than expected, and needed a top-up of sedative.

"Jaco once again managed to get the second dart the vet had prepared into his rump.

"But as the drug took effect, to our horror, the leopard rolled over and slipped off the cliff edge into a crack. By pure good luck, the gin-trap anchor got stuck in the crack and held him from falling further.

"We quickly pulled him back up and were able to see a male leopard in absolutely prime condition with a glowing golden coat.

"Luckily, the gin trap was small and had done no damage to the leopard's paw, other than some local swelling."

But it was a major effort to carry the 49kg cat down the mountain on a makeshift stretcher, Martins said.

"Finally, after many scrapes, bumps and cuts, the cat was on the back of our vehicle, where a proper examination was done and tissue samples were taken.

"Besides a traumatic experience, this leopard - one of the lucky few - survived virtually unscathed and we were able to release him back into his beautiful Karoo mountain range."

Although the setting of gin traps was frowned upon, the team were pleased that the farmer who had set the trap - trying to catch a caracal that had killed 15 of his sheep - had taken the trouble to contact the conservation authorities, Martins said.

"Farmers in these regions do experience livestock losses to predators. This needs to be dealt with in a way in which farmers are encouraged, not forced, to become part of the greater conservation goal."