Author: Katya Ignatiev
The morning sun is about to hit the hills of Jawai with a beautiful pink, golden light. Morning dew mists the jungle floors giving an eerie feel, that out there, somewhere amongst the bushes and boulders lies a mystical creature. She might be able to see us, she’s probably watching but we are in doubt of her whereabouts. As we trudge along the dirt track in our jeep we come across a fresh set of prints. How do we go about analysing and finding clues that’ll lead us to where this leopard is residing?
Understanding leopard pugmarks can be a thrilling exercise! Trying to see where a leopard has trailed and in which direction and how fresh it is, will give more depth and excitement to your safari experience. You are certainly sure of finding pug marks on your drives, identifying and interpreting these paw prints might even lead you to the most unusual and majestic sightings, you’ll especially feel rewarded that you’ve tracked your own leopard!
Here at Jawai, the field team uses various methods of tracking leopards of which includes identifying pugmarks. Despite the enormous variations in rock formations and landscapes that Jawai has to offer, every leopard leaves its tracks and other signs of their presence. When comparing to other field evidence, pugmarks are probably the most common and easiest way to identify reliable information on leopard movement. From one pugmark you could possibly tell the sex, age and condition of a leopard.
So where are you likely to find these paw prints? The best time to go looking for pugmarks is at the break of dawn when the overnight dew dampens the soil, and before any human activity comes to contact with the tracks. As well as the mornings, late afternoons are a good time to go tracking when the sun is low, this casts longer shadows on the prints making it easier to spot tracks on roads and animal trails. On the lucky occasion that a Jawai leopard treads on the soft grounds of the non-perennial, monsoon-fed streams that funnel into the Jawai Bandh, you are able to spot the perfect impression of a clear and crisp pugmark. Arid areas with hard top soils leave varied marks, and like the ancient granite rocks here at Jawai tracking can be difficult due to constant winds, blowing away every evidence of animal activity. Apart from scat findings and occasional remains of their prey’s hair/bones in various cracks and crevices of the hills, it’s hard to track these animals on such rocks. However, the flat plains on the ground in which the leopards come down too at night, leave evidence of their position on which hill they’ve chosen to reside for the day.
What do we look for in a pugmark? Firstly when taking a glance, the obvious thing is to tell that the pugmark you are looking at belongs to a leopard! There’s a vast difference between the print belonging to the member of the Canidae family and the Felidae family. Since these are the only soft-padded four-toed animals in our area, when taking a look, a hyena, for example, will leave behind a claw mark above the toes whereas leopards most often do not. Cat claws have a retractable mechanism, and only need them when hunting prey or cimbling rocks, on occasion claws might appear in a leopards pugmarks but only when frightened or startled by a predator.
Dogs need longer toes and claws to run down their prey whereas leopards rely mostly on acceleration off the block which means they have large pads compared to their toe size.
The second thing would be to try and distinguish between a male and a female. This, of course, can’t always be accurate as young males have similar size prints to females. However, with the basic knowledge and research of leopard movement in our area at Jawai, we can still do the process of elimination. But usually, if the pugmark is clear, males tend to have rounder toes whereas females will have a more tear drop appearance.
One can also tell the speed of an animal by looking at the different distances between each pug mark from Hind foot to back foot, left and right foot, you can actually tell how quickly a leopard stride is, by looking at the overlapping course of prints. If the back and front prints overlap each other, this means the animal is moving at a normal speed if however the front pugmark falls just behind the hind pugmark at a greater distance the leopard is in a hurry, and when the hind pugmark falls behind the front it’s a slow walk.
Overall tracking leopards in the wild is an art! And takes good time and practice.