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Protecting Africa’s elusive leopard

24 June 2016

The Zulu people revere the leopard, and consider it a totem animal with special powers. Yet several high-profile individuals, including President Jacob Zuma and King Goodwill Zwelithini wear real leopard skins to traditional ceremonial events.  Environmental regulations stipulate that every leopard skin in the country needs a permit issued from the government.

Leopards are listed on the stringent Appendix 1 of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international organisation that controls the trade of wild animals and their body parts. And in South Africa, the Biodiversity Act adds an even higher level of protection. “The law, in principle, protects leopards. The act states that it’s illegal to possess  a leopard skin without a permit. Even though thousands of Zulus own skins, no permits have been issued in KZN or the rest of SA in the last few years,” says Tristan Dickerson, a leopard researcher for conservation organization Panthera.

Yet the law means little to a cultural group that has valued leopard skins for over a century, ever since King Cetshwayo became the first monarch to wear a so-called amambatha  in the 1870s. These days, thousands of leopard skins are worn by members of the Shembe Church. Also known as the Nazareth Baptist Church, this church has its stronghold in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The religion is a blend of Old Testament Christianity and traditional Zulu customs, particularly reverence for ancestors. Close to one million followers belong to the church, founded by Isaiah Shembe (1870–1935), who is believed to be an African prophet of the Christian faith. “Each one of these one million worshippers is quite fond of leopard skins,” says Dickerson. “Such demand is clearly not so good for the conservation of leopards.

“We have to work with the Shembe rather than against them. Most of the members don’t know it’s illegal. The leopard is such a huge part of the Zulu culture. Let’s be real. If we went in fighting, things would collapse and even more leopards would be killed. We have to offer a viable solution.” The solution is to supply fake furs, made in China, to the Shembe Church. Panthera’s Furs for Life project has been  a huge success, with more than 8 000 man-made skins supplied, with funding from Peace Parks Foundation. A further 13 000 furs will be supplied over the next two years.

While some members of the Zulu nation may not know the law, and inadvertently buy real leopard skins – at a price of about R4 500 – the western market for leopard furs was once the biggest reason for the drastic decline in Africa’s leopard population. According to leopard biologist Dr Guy Balme, “Trade in spotted cat skins was the major driver of leopard declines and most of the spotted cat species. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was estimated that roughly 50 000 leopards were being killed every year to fuel this demand.” In the 1980s, leopards were listed on CITES Appendix 1, receiving the highest protection, which brought an end to the fur trade. Leopards are listed as “Near Threatened” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

According to Balme, they should be uplisted to ‘Vulnerable’, which is just one rank lower than ‘Endangered’. He estimates based on research with other leopard experts around Africa that in the last 100 years, the species has disappeared from 40% of its traditional range. “The worst culprits are West and Central Africa, where leopards have disappeared from most of their range. But the same goes for Southern and East Africa, where there’s evidence that leopard numbers are dropping rapidly outside of protected areas.”

In South Africa, where wildlife and livestock farming is big business, a leopard can cause much damage. It’s estimated that 68% of suitable leopard habitat is found outside protected areas in South Africa. This means leopards regularly come into contact with farmers, communities and urban areas, where they pose real threats. “Leopards cause significant problems to livestock owners. They’re opportunistic hunters, and won’t think twice before killing 30 sheep in a kraal.” The same goes for game farmers, whose lucrative antelope can sell for hundreds of thousands of rands.

“A black impala can sell for R15 000 so if a leopard eats  one of your black impala,  you’re likely to be very angry,” explains Balme. Then there’s trophy hunting. Despite the crash in leopard numbers, CITES still allows for about 2 000 leopards to be hunted for sport across 13 African states every year. In Tanzania and Zimbabwe, 500 leopards are on quota.  Recently, the South African government placed a one-year ban on all leopard hunting, prohibiting the issue of the usual 150 annual permits until a reliable figure for the country’s leopard population has been credibly established.

And this seems to be the biggest challenge for leopard conservationists. “For the most part, we are operating in this knowledge vacuum. Leopards are a cryptic species. They’re elusive, wide-ranging and nocturnal. When it comes to making management decisions it’s very hard.”  Also, leopard numbers have dropped to such an extent that poachers are now looking further afield for skins. “When you talk to traders,” Balme explains, “they say they’re finding it very difficult to find leopard skins here in South Africa now. So they’re sourcing skins from as far afield as Malawi, Zambia, northern Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.”

The leopard is a fascinating, elusive predator. It is this very characteristic, however, that is proving the biggest stumbling block in conservation efforts. This is the leopard’s story by Scott Ramsay