Leopards losing out to bushmeat hunters in competition for prey

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com
August 25, 2011



WARNING: Graphic photos after the article.

Leopard caught on camera trap in Gabon. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.
Leopard caught on camera trap in Gabon. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.

According to a surprising new study in the Journal of Zoology, bushmeat hunting is imperiling jungle-dwelling leopards (Panthera pardus) in Africa, even though hunters aren't targeting the elusive big cats themselves. Instead, by hunting many of the leopard's preferred prey—such as red river hogs and forest antelopes—bushmeat hunters are out-competing leopards.

"Human populations in this region rely primarily on bushmeat for their protein requirements, and between one and five million metric tons of wild meat are estimated to be traded annually," according to the paper.

In order to determine how leopards are faring in such intensively hunted forests, the study examined leopard presence through camera traps, as well as diet from scat, in and around Ivindo and Lope National Parks in Gabon. In forest areas with high hunting, researchers found that leopards were forced to survive on smaller prey, since most of the larger animals had been hunted out by humans.

"While leopards can hang on in forests with moderate levels of hunting, they are forced to switch their diets to smaller, less preferred prey species and they cannot reach their normal densities. We don't fully understand the implications of this, but I can imagine this scenario making things very difficult for a female leopard to reproduce—she might be able to keep herself alive but finding a mate and providing for cubs could be hugely challenging," explains lead author, Philipp Henschel, expert on forest leopards for big cat-NGO Panthera.

 Bushmeat hunting with dog, photo taken by camera trap. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.
Bushmeat hunting with dog, photo taken by camera trap. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.
Bushmeat hunting can push leopards out altogether, according to the study, which found one site completely absent of leopards even though the site was composed of primary, unfragmented forest and the local people inhabiting the forest have a totem against hunting leopard or eating them.

"[This} is a sobering example of the 'Empty Forest' phenomenon. You can have intact, old growth forest that looks basically pristine but is so heavily hunted that there are few large mammals—and no top carnivores at all. It clearly demonstrates the necessity of strictly protected forests where absolutely no bushmeat exploitation occurs," said Panthera President Luke Hunter, who co-authored the new paper. "Even well-managed logging concessions- those that prohibit their employees from hunting, and actually enforce those rules—can help leopards and their prey. The Congo Basin is one of the most important strongholds for leopards remaining in Africa; it is essential that we find ways to address the massive trade in bushmeat if we want to keep it that way."

According to the paper, the evidence that bushmeat hunting impacts leopards is likely relevant to other big cats in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

"Overhunting of prey is undoubtedly a factor affecting the viability of tiger populations, and it is also likely a key factor in the ability of jaguars to persist in human-modified landscapes and move between them."

Listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List, leopards have faced many of the same issues that imperil other top predators—poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat loss—but their elusive nature and adaptability have allowed them to hold on better than some of their cat cousins. Of course, this isn't saying much as leopards have still been pushed out of 40 percent of their historic range in Africa. Three leopard subspecies—the Javan, the Amur, and the Arabian—are listed as Critically Endangered.



CITATION: Henschel, P., Hunter, L. T. B., Coad, L., Abernethy, K. A., & Mühlenberg, M. (2011) Leopard prey choice in the Congo Basin rainforest suggests exploitative competition with human bushmeat hunters. Journal of Zoology, 285, 11-20.



Leopard mother with two cubs (barely visible in the back). Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.
Leopard mother with two cubs (barely visible in the back). Photo by: Laila Bahaa-el-din/Panthera.



Camera trap hidden in log takes photo of bushmeat hunter. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.
Camera trap hidden in log takes photo of bushmeat hunter. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.



Heads of red river hogs left by train tracks. Red river hogs are preferred prey of both leopards and locals. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.
Heads of red river hogs left by train tracks. Red river hogs are preferred prey of both leopards and locals. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.



Heads of red river hogs left by train tracks. Red river hogs are preferred prey of both leopards and locals. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.
Confiscated animal parts: leopard and lion skins in front, chimpanzee heads in back. Photo by: Philipp Henschel/Panthera.

















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CITATION:
Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (August 25, 2011).

Leopards losing out to bushmeat hunters in competition for prey.

http://news.mongabay.com/2011/0825-hance_leopard_bushmeat.html