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Leopard leopards and sport hunting

Wednesday 19th October 2011

Leopard leopards and sport hunting

A few days ago, we were invited to the Wildlife Heritage Foundation site in Kent. As a specialized wild cat centre it is not open to the public, but maintains genetically important individuals for captive breeding programmes of Amur leopards, Sumatran tigers, clouded leopards and also smaller cats. Many thanks to Simon Jones for taking the time to show us around.

The maintenance and breeding of such critically endangered species does have a role in conservation, and sadly it is a last-ditch effort for many more species than we are willing to acknowledge with our often Panglossian outlook.

Many factors have contributed to the appalling state many of the world’s cat species are in now, and guess what will not surprise you? They are all to do with humans. Some people look at a clouded leopard, a snow leopard, and, for lack of a dual description, a leopard leopard, and what they see is not the kind of sleek beauty and coat colour camouflage that evolutionarily belongs to those species – they see a fur coat or a hunting trophy or some dried traditional voodoo medicine to relieve headaches and haemorrhoids.

That visit coincided with a number of mails I have received about trophy hunting of African leopards, so this blog will be about leopard leopards in Africa, their unknown population numbers and hunting pressure, and yes, once again, the miserable level of attention paid to a species by CITES and the IUCN. If Voltaire had not invented Pangloss in his novel Candide, he would have found his equivalents sitting in the offices of those two organizations, all doubtlessly chanting “Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes” .

Let me start out by saying that we know practically nothing about the African leopard. Some genetic work was done in 1996, and urgently needs to be repeated with the more modern techniques available. As with all African species with a wide continental distribution, I can predict with great confidence that leopards in western Africa will be significantly genetically different from those in eastern and southern Africa. At least.

Continuing on our “know nothing” trend, we have absolutely no idea, not even a scrap or a smidgeon or a morsel of an idea of how many leopards there are in Africa. Being solitary and largely nocturnal, any real survey would take huge dedication, effort, time, and money, and is thus shied away from. 

Oh, there are some projections of leopard numbers based on some small surveys done in a few areas and then splashed across the continent. Those are meaningless. On the other hand, leopards do well in terms of surviving in areas where humans abound – I remember well driving home in the early hours of the morning after collecting genetic samples from antelope species culled on a game farm - to be served at the Carnivore Restaurant the next day. Encountering leopards on the silent streets of Nairobi is not unusual - leopards often dine on their fellow carnivores, and stray dogs must have been high on the menu of these urban big cats.

It will not surprise you when I say that leopard skins were at one time hugely popular to be made into coats. Indeed, CITES at one point put leopards on their Appendix I given the numbers of skins exported, but then changed their opinion and downgraded leopards again. Zimbabwe alone exported 2348 leopard skins 1975-2009…

People wearing leopard skin coats in public are not well received these days, but we do seem to tolerate sport hunters taking home their trophies. The top nine African countries that permit leopard hunting have exported…ready?... 5543 leopards over the five years until 2009. Plus 432 skins. So says CITES. And those are only the legal exports, not the contribution to the slaughter by happy hunters in South Africa for example who do not elect to export what they have shot. And those numbers do not include the illegal exports that CITES does not monitor. So how many leopards are shot in Africa yearly? 1400 at a conservative guess?

Let me repeat something I said earlier. We have NO idea how many leopards there are in Africa. They are shot without regard to age or even sex by sport hunters. This is not sustainable hunting, it is slaughter. As with the lions.  LionAid is for lions, but we will push on all fronts to stop sport hunting masquerading as conservation. In fact, Craig Packer in his 2009 paper mentioned that hunting operators in Tanzania are now substituting leopards for lions on their advertised hunts as lions have pretty much been shot out in their concessions.

My next blog will be about rhinos and CITES. Stay tuned!

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Posted by Pieter Kat at 22:13

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