A Species Under Threat
The leopard (Panthera pardus) is the smallest of the four "big cats" after the tiger, lion and jaguar. Leopards are the most versatile of big cats and occupy all habitats from the Congo rainforest to true deserts. However, even with their remarkable adaptability, leopards have vanished from almost 40% of their historic range in Africa, and from over 50% of their historic range in Asia. Leopards are now extinct in 6 countries they formerly occupied, and their presence in 6 additional countries is very uncertain.
In 2008, the IUCN stated that leopards may soon move from a “Near Threatened” to “Vulnerable” status due to heavy hunting mainly for the commercial trade in Asia, persecution due to human-conflict situations, poorly managed legal trophy hunting, and habitat loss and fragmentation. Leopards are also persecuted in Africa by local tribes who use leopard skins for ceremonial dress and body parts for traditional uses.
One of the rarest felids in the world is the Amur leopard, a subspecies of leopard. There are now only approximately 30 remaining Amur leopards in the wild. This is the northern-most sub-species that lives alongside Siberian tigers in far eastern Russia’s snow-cloaked boreal forest.
While leopards have the largest distribution of any big cat, data over the last ten years show that populations are declining and are becoming fragmented.
- In a single province of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal, one individual poacher was caught with the skins of over 150 leopards. In sub-Saharan Africa, leopard parts are valued for traditional beliefs and the skins are worn by the chiefs and royalty, such as the Zulus.
- The leopard is the last remaining big cat of the Atlas Mountains but there has been no definite record of the species in North Africa since 2002.
- At least 28 leopards were killed in illegal gin traps between 2005-2008 in South Africa’s Cape Mountains, where the leopard is a unique, pygmy form only half the size of leopards elsewhere in the country.
How We're Helping
Over the past seven years, Panthera's President, Dr. Luke Hunter, and Leopard Program Director, Dr. Guy Balme, have led Panthera’s Munyawana Leopard Project, the longest and most comprehensive leopard study to date, and their findings have resulted in an effective conservation plan for these gorgeous cats. At the start of the project in 2002, leopards were legally - but unsustainably - hunted by trophy hunters and illegally hunted by farmers because of the threat they pose to livestock and wild game. In order to reduce leopard killings in the region, Panthera's scientists worked with local policy makers to create sustainable conservation solutions.
Our scientists proposed reducing the overall number of leopards hunted, advised that hunts be distributed more evenly across the region to avoid disproportionately impacting a single population, and urged that hunting female and young leopards be banned. In 2006, Panthera's recommendations were successfully implemented and by 2008 data showed that the plans were working.
Leopards are living longer, people are killing fewer cats, and the population is growing. Females are also having more cubs. Guy Balme believes that the continuous turnover from hunting put the population in chaos. Male leopards don't help raise cubs, but they do provide essential security for females who share their home, protecting them from new males who routinely kill cubs to improve the chances of mating. With the constant killing of male leopards, females were trapped in a cycle where resident males were not around long enough to guard the cubs from intruding males. Reducing the number of male leopards killed has helped to re-establish stability, and females now have a safe window in which to raise their young.
Results from this study are being applied elsewhere in Africa to help conserve leopards; and this project is a shining example of how good science can effect policy, and make a difference on a grand scale.