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Human-wildlife conflict is decimating leopard numbers in one of their last African strongholds

  • A research team led by Dr. Samual Williams of the Department of Anthropology at Durham University in the UK conducted a long-term trap survey from 2012 to 2016 in order to study the leopard population in South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains, one of the leopard’s last strongholds in Africa.
  • They found that the cats’ population density decreased by 44 percent between 2012 and 2016. That means that, based on a previous estimate of their abundance, the leopard population in the Soutpansberg Mountains has decreased by two-thirds since 2008, Williams and his co-authors note in the study.
  • While the researchers argue that, based on their findings, a current ban on leopard hunting in South Africa should not be lifted in areas where the species is facing sharp declines in numbers, they add that efforts to reduce often-lethal conflicts between leopards and humans might have an even bigger impact.

South Africa banned the hunting of leopards last year amid uncertainty over the species’ numbers and ongoing threats to its survival posed by mismanagement of the trophy hunting industry and the illegal trade in its fur.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are notoriously difficult animals to study in the wild due to their secretive nature. They are primarily nocturnal creatures who live solitary lives and range over vast areas of land in search of food and mates.

The hunting ban in South Africa is still in effect as more information on the leopard abundance is collected by authorities. The species is currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

According to the authors of a study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science last month that seeks to shed light on the population dynamics and conservation status of leopards living outside protected areas in South Africa, the species is declining in greater numbers and at a much more rapid pace than has been previously understood. But while the researchers argue that, based on their findings, the ban on leopard hunting should not be allowed to resume in areas where the species is facing sharp declines in numbers, they add that efforts to reduce often-lethal conflicts between leopards and humans might have an even bigger impact.

A research team led by Dr. Samual Williams of the Department of Anthropology at Durham University in the UK conducted a long-term trap survey from 2012 to 2016 in order to study the leopard population in South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains, one of the leopard’s last strongholds in Africa. The team used 23 camera traps that ran continuously throughout the four-year study period and identified individual leopards by their unique coat markings to determine leopard numbers in the area. They found that the cats’ population density decreased by 44 percent between 2012 and 2016.

That means that, based on a previous estimate of their abundance, the leopard population in the Soutpansberg Mountains has decreased by two-thirds since 2008, Williams and his co-authors note in the study — down from 10.73 leopards per 100 square kilometers in 2008 to 3.65 per 100 sq. km. last year.

That is a pace of loss that the population simply cannot sustain for long, Williams said. “If the current rate of decline is not slowed down then there will be no leopards left in the western Soutpansberg Mountains by 2020. This is especially alarming considering that in 2008 this area had one of the highest leopard population densities in Africa.”

As a means of establishing what exactly is driving leopard abundance down so rapidly, Williams and team fitted eight adult leopards with GPS collars, allowing them to track the cats’ movements. Six of those leopards died before the study was completed. The researchers discovered that the chief cause of those deaths was illegal, retaliatory killings by people who feared the leopards posed a threat to their livestock.

“Illegal human activities like shooting, snaring and poisoning were the leading cause of death in the leopards we tracked,” Williams said. “This was often in response to a perception that leopards were a threat to livestock. There is a clear need for conservation efforts to address these illegal killings. Educating communities and supporting them to adopt non-lethal techniques to help protect their livestock is essential.”

Williams adds that trophy hunting in areas like the Soutpansberg Mountains is still “a luxury that cannot be afforded.”

“Large carnivores like leopards are hugely important to the ecosystem of an area and also carry significant economic and cultural importance,” he said. “Their loss would impoverish both the ecology of the area and human culture so it is vital that we understand the threats leopards face and act on this.”

Protecting leopards in areas where they still exist in substantial numbers, like the Soutpansberg Mountains, is especially important given that their range has shrunk drastically in recent years. Large carnivores have, on average, lost 53 percent of their historic range, the researchers note in the study. Leopards are facing even worse circumstances, having lost 63 to 75 percent of their range worldwide. That figure is even higher in South Africa, where leopards have lost some 80 percent of their historical range.

Combined with this sharp drop in habitable territory, trophy hunting has had an undeniable impact on leopard populations. But Williams and his co-authors write in the study that conflicts with humans are perhaps the more urgent threat to the survival of the species: “While improving the management of trophy hunting is important, we suggest that mitigating human–wildlife conflict could have a bigger impact on carnivore conservation.”

Given that close to 70 percent of remaining leopard habitat in South Africa is outside of legally protected areas, the researchers argue, “leopard conservation efforts should be focused outside of protected areas, where leopards are most at risk.”

An African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) at the Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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