COUNTRYWIDE - The hunting of leopards has been contentious for some time, as there is a lack of reliable information about their numbers. In the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species for 2015, leopards are classified as “Near threatened”, but with the addendum that although they are locally common in parts of Africa, they are declining in large parts of their range. This decline is due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and hunting for trade and pest control, and significant enough that the species could soon qualify for Vulnerable.
Acting on recommendations by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) recently put in place a ban on leopard hunting until the end of 2016. Conservationists convinced officials that until numbers could be firmly established, hunting the cats was highly irresponsible as they may constitute a seriously endangered population. The risk is exacerbated as leopards have a low reproductive rate, their distribution is fragmented and their population trend uncertain.
The DEA motivated the ban by listing the threats to leopards as excessive legal and illegal shooting of ‘damage-causing animals,’ poorly managed trophy hunting, illegal trade in leopard skins for cultural and religious attire, and generally poor monitoring of hunts and permit allocation. Only between 5% and 15% of leopard habitat was strictly protected. The trophy ban is in place throughout this year. According to the DEA statement, the scientific authority will then review the situation. It will also develop norms and standards for the management and monitoring of leopard hunting throughout the country.
Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), South Africa is permitted to allocate 150 leopard trophy export permits a year. Early warning of possible permit curtailment appeared in the Government Gazette late last year indicating that if the guidelines issued earlier in the year were not adhered to, provincial quotas would be set to zero for 2016.
As could be expected, the decision was not universally welcome. The data used by SANBI was mostly from protected areas and national parks, not private lands, which led the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) to say it gave an incomplete picture, claiming that there were lots of leopards on private reserves. PHASA also emphasised that the current drought is good for leopard numbers, as predators typically thrive when the rains are poor, and their prey is weakened.
The ban has been widely reported, both in South Africa and overseas, and welcomed by conservationists who felt that a ban was vital until we can ensure that any wildlife trade is sustainable. Conservation groups also emphasised the need for high quality research on the population numbers and distribution.
Additional information: Africa Geographic