A  leopard near Mata Mata. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)
A leopard near Mata Mata. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)
A  leopard near Mata Mata. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)
A leopard near Mata Mata. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) “jumped the gun” by deciding controversially to reinstate hunting of leopard in South Africa.
“I don’t know how the DEA has come to the conclusion that it’s a good idea to hunt leopard, given the declines reported across the board,” remarked Maxine Gaines, a KwaZulu-Natal-based wildlife biologist, yesterday.

In 2015, the department announced it was placing a moratorium on leopard hunting because the predators were in decline across most of their range.

But this week it revealed the 2018 quota for trophy hunting - five male leopards in Limpopo and two males in KwaZulu-Natal.

The leopards to be hunted must be seven years or older.

“This is a very cryptic species and a huge amount of effort has gone into getting to know more about leopards since the moratorium was put in place. We know so little, even with all the research. We’ve only scratched the surface and need to tread with real caution.”

The current leopard conservation status was of a population in decline, facing several threats, Gaines said.

The DEA said this week that hunting of leopard would only be undertaken in specified zones where scientific evidence indicated stable leopard populations.

“As part of an ongoing adaptive management approach, the Scientific Authority concluded that a small quota, restricted to older males and coupled with the implementation of appropriate management systems would not have a detrimental effect on the survival of leopard in the wild,” it said.

No hunting should take place where leopard populations were in decline or where there was an absence of scientifically robust data on leopard population trends.

“The DEA have put in some really good measures to ensure leopard hunting is sustainable,” explained Dr Kelly Marnewick, senior trade officer at the Endangered Wildlife Trust. “These are based on good long-term research and adaptive management. What the monitoring finds this year will determine the quota for next year.”

Bool Smuts, founder of the Landmark Foundation, an NGO focused on leopard and predator conservation, believed “at best there are 5000 leopards” remaining in South Africa and, at worst, about 3000.

“I believe that if they (the DEA) get this through without too much of a fight from us, next year it will open the floodgates. There are vested interests from the hunting industry at play and there has been no consultation with conservation stakeholders.”

Hunters, he argued, would be unable to age and sex leopards during a hunt as they had “a split-second” to shoot the animal.

Gaines warned that infanticide would be worse in hunting areas where males in their prime were continuously removed. Male leopards in protected areas bordering on hunting areas would be vulnerable too because they ranged widely.

The DEA said the unregulated trade in leopard skins by religious groups such as the Shembe “needs urgent attention as available evidence suggests that this impact is much greater than trophy hunting”.

Dries van Coller, president of the Professional Hunters Association of SA, argued the low quota was a “slap in the face” for landowners, farmers and hunters. "Farmers who have lost 20 to 30 animals or wildlife to leopards will tell you a different story to the preservation lobby.”

South Africa had been allocated an annual quota of 150 leopards by international wildlife trade authority, Cites. “The full quota should be utilised. We know that more leopards have been illegally poisoned and destroyed since the moratorium was put in place. It’s called shoot, shovel, and shut up. That’s what we want to try to prevent - to give landowners an incentive to protect leopards.

“The minister has issued a cautionary quota with strict requirements in place that won't have a negative impact on leopard populations,” he said.