Panthera Press Release: New Study Sheds Light on Threats Facing Leopards in the Congo Basin Rainforest
A new study led by Panthera Lion Program Survey Coordinator and leopard expert, Dr. Philipp Henschel, in cooperation with the Universities of Oxford, Stirling and Göttingen, has identified a new threat to Africa’s dwindling leopard populations: direct competition with human bushmeat hunters for the same food. Henschel’s study of leopards in the Congo Basin rainforest, published in the September issue of the Journal of Zoology, suggests that bushmeat hunting by people may drive declines in leopard numbers by removing their food base - in ecological jargon, exploitative competition for prey. The study established for the first time that leopards and bushmeat hunters are targeting exactly the same prey species, medium-sized herbivores such as forest antelopes and bush pigs (like red river hogs). At sites where prey was scarce due to uncontrolled bushmeat exploitation, leopard densities were less than a quarter of their density in well protected sites, even though all other factors were equal. In the most hunted site, Henschel’s team could find no evidence of leopards at all.
“Human populations throughout the Congo Basin rely primarily on bushmeat for their protein requirements so the implications of our findings are immense.” said Philipp Henschel, who works as Panthera’s Lion Survey Coordinator as well as being the organization’s expert on forest leopards. “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.”
The study is compelling for clearly demonstrating that leopards do not have to be directly targeted by hunters to affect their numbers. In fact, in the worst site documented by Henschel, leopards had local totemic value and were protected from hunting; but, overhunting of their prey was what likely led to their local extinction at that site.
“Philipp’s study 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.”