Last week, Gabon's water and forestry and defence ministries arrested five vendors at Mont Bouët market in the Gabon capital of Libreville after attempting to sell 12 leopard skins, 1 piece of lion skin, 1 African golden cat skin, the head and hands of an endangered gorilla, 12 chimpanzee heads, 30 chimpanzee hands and five elephant tails. Intelligence about the vendors had been provided by the local wildlife law enforcement NGO Conservation Justice, and as the arrests were made, Panthera's Lion Program Survey Coordinator, Philipp Henschel, who is based in Gabon, was called in to help identify the confiscated felid skins.
In Gabon, leopard body parts are traditionally revered as powerful symbols; leopard skins adorn ceremonial houses across rural Gabon while its canine teeth are worn as necklaces by the most revered and powerful spiritual healers. More recently, however, there are also indications for a growing international trade in leopard skins originating from Gabon and neighboring Republic of the Congo. Both countries are sparsely settled, and leopards are still widely distributed and present in all larger protected areas. In contrast, leopards are absent from most protected areas in the neighboring countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and Nigeria.
The main players in the leopard skin trade appear to be West African traders, who smuggle skins from Gabon and Republic of the Congo through Cameroon into Nigeria – a known regional hub for illegal wildlife traffic, and, increasingly, Chinese road workers and loggers who smuggle skins into Asia. Panthera is collaborating with ministries and wildlife law enforcement NGOs across this region in their efforts to halt the illegal trade in skins of leopards and lions. By taking samples of seized leopard and lion skins for genetic analysis, and comparing the population genetics of illegally traded skins with wild populations across the region, Panthera aims to identify poaching hotspots and to help trace the routes of the illegal skin trade. Of particular interest in the current seizure will be the origin of the large piece of lion skin, as lions are very likely extinct in Gabon, and have not been documented there in 15 years.
Read a report on the latest lion surveys co-conducted and co-authored by Phil Henschel - Lion status updates from five range countries in West and Central Africa.
Read Phil Henschel's scientific publication on The status and conservation of leopards and other large carnivores in the Congo Basin, and the potential role of reintroduction.
Learn more about Panthera's Lion Program Survey Coordinator, Philipp Henschel.
Read a BBC article about this wildlife trafficking case.
Read Panthera's Lion Report Card: The State of the Lion.