A leopard is seen at the Metropolitan Zoo and Botanical Garden of Budapest, Hungary on Jan. 4, 2019. Picture: Xinhua/Attila Volgyi
Johannesburg - They’re part of South Africa’s iconic Big Five, but the country’s fragile and fractured leopard population is being wiped out by habitat loss, a declining population, illegal poaching for their skins and body parts and killed in retaliatory killings by farmers.

These are among the reasons why the Landmark Foundation, an NGO which focuses on leopard and predator conservation, together with the Wild Animal Protection Forum of South Africa, has called for a ban on trophy leopard hunting.

Last month, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) requested recommendations for the 2019 leopard trophy hunting quota.

It has asked the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) for the leopard hunting trophy and skin quota for personal use to be retained at 150.

But the Landmark Foundation says the DEA’s submission “flies in the face” of data before it on declining population trends.

“In SA, leopard populations are currently contracting at 11% per annum and a further 8% decline assessed in 2017.

“This indicates a persistent decline We submit that in light of the current lack of scientific, peer-reviewed, methodologically rigorous analyses and inclusive consultative process to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that a non-zero export quota in trophy hunting of leopards will not imperil wild leopard survival, the quota should be set to zero,” it says.

The DEA says in its submission to Cites that between 2005 and 2016, SA did not fully utilise its export quota of 150 leopard hunting trophies and skins for personal use, having exported on average 73 per year, mostly as trophies.

“It is therefore unnecessary to consider an increase in the export quota. On the other hand, a reduction in the export quota would limit the flexibility that is crucial for the adaptive management approach adopted by South Africa for the allocation of leopard hunting quotas.

“Considering that the leopard is the most valuable hunting trophy exported from SADC, it is hoped that this adaptive management approach will encourage collaborative landowner participation in the project, and ultimately incentivise management practices that contribute towards leopard conservation.”

In 2015, the department placed a moratorium on leopard hunts but last year it allowed seven leopards to be hunted in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.

The foundation says there is evidence of a persistent decline in Northern Natal (Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and St Lucia Eastern Shores) in 2015 and 2016, with the former showing a decline of 70% in five years.

“Further declines are reported in Limpopo with areas indicating a decline of as much as 44%.

“Despite this, the DEA approved trophy hunting permits in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal in 2018. By their own admission, DEA has no idea of leopard population dynamics in other regions in South Africa. Based on the trends, it must be accepted that population numbers continue to decline across the country.”

Trophy hunting, it says, can exacerbate population declines where other human-caused mortality is “severe, ongoing, not fully recorded and uncontrolled”.

There are unknown numbers of leopard mortalities from human-wildlife conflict while cultural artefact harvesting “compounds this situation and should advocate against the reinstitution of leopard sports hunting.

“Government has no control over the situation and should not be compounding the peril for the species by contributing to its mortalities in appeasement of hunting industry pressures.”

The DEA says significant declines in leopard density have been observed in some areas.

“Some stable populations appear to be well below their potential capacities, while other areas with prime leopard habitat seem to no longer have functioning leopard populations." 

The department says that at present, the "illegal killing of leopards for skins and other body parts for traditional ceremonies and medicine is believed to be the major threat facing leopard within South Africa, and more widely across southern Africa."

"Leopard skins are used in ceremonial wear by a number of religious groups in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland, most notably the Nazareth Baptist 'Shembe' Church. Surveys undertaken at religious gatherings of the 'Shembe' church suggest there are approximately between 13 000 and 18 000 illegal leoprd skins in circulation among church members."

Members of the Shembe Church wear leopard skins during their dance celebrations at eBuhleni, near Durban, in 2017. At least 1 200 men in ceremonial attire danced at the mainly Zulu gathering, wearing a mix of hides of illegally hunted leopards and Chinese-made, spotted capes designed by conservationists to reduce demand for the real thing. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya / AP

It says that other threats to leopard in SA include excessive off-takes (legal and illegal) of putative damage causing animals, the unethical radio-collaring of leopards for research and tourism, habitat loss and fragmentation for the development of urban areas, mines and agriculture.

“In some provinces, progress has been made in reducing the number of leopards killed as damage-causing animals though the recent shift in South Africa’s game ranching industry to high-value species and colour variants has likely decreased tolerance towards leopards and increased levels of retaliatory killing.”

To improve the management of the species, the DEA has established the South African Leopard Monitoring Project, which has provided for a “standardised, rigorous framework using systematic camera-trap surveys for the monitoring of leopard population trends throughout South Africa.

“Hunting will be restricted to leopard hunting zones where scientifically robust data on leopard density trends indicate overall stable (or increasing) populations.”

Norms and standards for the trophy hunting of leopards are under development, which will distribute hunting effort evenly across leopard range in South Africa; limit hunting to male leopards of at least seven years of age; and ensure the mandatory submission of hunt return data and trophy photographs following all leopard hunts.”

But the foundation says leopards probably live to 10-13 years in protected environments, and when in conflict in production landscapes on average six to eight years.

“It is rare that a male leopard has a stable territory before five to six years and thus the paternal factor of cubs. To suggest you can shoot them from this early age is sure to create havoc among the populations and generalise infanticide.”

Dries van Coller, president of the Professional Hunters’ Association of SA, believes leopards are not in decline. “In areas where we are hunting, we see an increase in leopard populations. We have so many coming to lodges and so much footage of leopards... There’s a major conflict with leopards and farmers, it’s an explosive situation, and authorities keep issuing damage-causing animal permits in any case, which is wasteful and not beneficial to conservation.”

Saturday Star