In a recent Government Notice, (482 of 2021) signed on the 2nd of September, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) of Botswana announced the wildlife hunting quotas for the year 2022. The total number of leopard trophy hunting quotas allocated equates to 70 leopards across the country.
The quotas are allocated per area/concession. Of the 70 leopards, 15 were allocated to the region around the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 16 come from the area between the Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi, 12 from the area west of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and six from the Chobe region. The Government Notice can be found here and a map of relevant areas can be found here. This Government Notice was sent to Africa Geographic by one of our sources and we have been unable to confirm its veracity or trace a version officially released by the Botswana government that is freely available to the public.
Though the Government Notice includes quotas for a total of 16 different species (including elephants but not lions), this article focuses specifically on leopards. As largely solitary, territorial big cats, unsustainable trophy hunting can have potentially devastating effects on leopard numbers and demographics (Balme et al., 2009).
How many leopards are there in Botswana?
As they are a cryptic species, obtaining a reliable population count of leopards is notoriously difficult. An actual physical count at national level is next to impossible so scientists rely on a number of different techniques such as camera trap studies, spoor (track) counts, and citizen science photographic surveys. The density of leopards (usually in number of leopards/100km2) is then calculated and extrapolated to give a rough estimate of leopard numbers depending on the vegetation type/habitat. As a result, population estimates of leopards usually have extremely large confidence intervals (the population could be anywhere within an extensive range). The next step is to use this method to analyse the population trend over the years to determine the impact of human activity, including legal and illegal “offtake” and conservation measures.
A report from the DWNP from May 2020 gives an estimated population of 4,295 leopards, with a caveat to this being that this number could range from anywhere between 1,893 and 6,700. The report also breaks down the estimated leopard population. The DWNP acknowledges that data on leopard population trends is limited, though comparison with a previous count in 2004 from the Central Statistics Office shows a decline in numbers. The DWNP suggests that this is due to an overestimate of numbers by the 2004 report, rather than a declining leopard population. They also point to other “proxy trend measures” such as a stable number of leopard attacks on livestock to demonstrate that the population is stable.
The report states that the data for leopard numbers and densities were compiled by the Botswana Carnivore Forum (a coalition of carnivore projects). We have attempted to reach them for comment on the hunting quotas for leopards and asked if they are happy that the numbers specific to allocated areas are sustainable. We have not yet received a response but will update as and if we do.
CITES quotas, hunting quotas and over-estimates
Each year, CITES issues export quotas for various species. These quotas are a limit on the number or quantity of specimens of a particular species that may be exported from the country concerned within a 12-month period. This is not the same as the hunting quota set by the national government, the two numbers are set independently but clearly if a national government sets a hunting quota for a particular species at a number higher than the CITES quota, then that country will not be able to export that excess.
The May 2020 report from the DWNP was compiled as part of a legal CITES requirement for member states to submit a review and non-detriment determination for their annual CITES export quota of leopard hunting trophies and skins. The high CITES leopard export quotas up to 2018 came under fire from academics as being “fundamentally at odds with principles of sustainable use, precaution and adaptive management” (Trouwborst et al., 2019). See Leopard hunting: CITES quotas not sustainable for further information.
At present, Botswana has a CITES export quota for 130 leopard trophies – a number that the May 2020 report states is sustainable and that the DWNP requested be maintained. It states that “the leopard population sustainably supported trophy hunting offtakes when the annual quota was set at 130, and there is no reason to expect that there has been a subsequent decline in leopard numbers and no evidence of such a decline”. Similarly, Namibia and South Africa both requested that their CITES quotas remain the same, at 250 and 150 respectively. Both Kenya and Malawi have scrapped their quotas entirely.
It is important to note that these quotas are not targets and many of the 12 leopard range states with export quotas do not make use of their full quotas. So Botswana has an international export quota from CITES for leopard trophies and skins of 130 but has only issued 70 national hunting quotas, so they do not intend to fill their quota for 2022. South Africa is another good example here, where the most recent national leopard hunting quota was set at 11.
In response to the 2018 national reviews of leopard hunting quotas, the IUCN Cat Specialist Group released a position statement cautioning that “robust information on distribution, abundance and population size and trends at the national level and in hunting areas” is “largely missing” and that “extrapolations based on incorrect assumptions have resulted in overestimates of abundance”. Botswana, Namibia and South Africa all went some way towards addressing these concerns in their subsequent quota reviews.
Apples and oranges
To put Botswana’s leopard quotas into context, it is useful to compare their approach to that of both Namibia and South Africa, especially as these two countries offer arguably the most robust data on national leopard densities. However, it is important to bear in mind that each of these countries has its own unique circumstances, leopard densities, and pressures.
In South Africa, the government imposed a moratorium on leopard hunting in 2016 and 2017 after the country’s Scientific Authority expressed concern that the number of leopards in South Africa was unknown and that trophy hunting posed a high risk to the remaining population. Quotas for seven and 11 leopards were then allocated in 2018 and 2020 respectively. The government has not yet released the quota allocation for 2021. However, South Africa differs from both Botswana and Namibia in that protected areas only cover eight per cent of the country. Recent studies suggest that leopards are extinct in 67% of South Africa (Jacobson et al. 2016) and that the population could be declining by as much as 11% per year (Mann et al. 2018). There is no reliable estimate of the national leopard population. (See Leopard Quota Review: South Africa.)
In contrast, around 40% of Namibia falls under some level of ecological protection, a percentage similar to that of Botswana. Leopards are believed to be present in around 63% and 70% of Botswana and Namibia respectively (Jacobson et al. 2016 and Stein et al. 2011). Between 2004 and 2017, an average of 142 leopards were hunted per year in Namibia, with the highest number of leopards hunted being 161 in 2017. Namibia’s leopard population was most recently estimated at 11,733 leopards in an extensive study from 2019 that delves into everything from leopard densities and population trends to human-wildlife conflict and the sustainability of current trophy hunting quotas. The methods used are clearly outlined, as are the potential limitations of the study, and can be accessed here: the National Leopard Census and Sustainable Hunting Practices Study Report. Importantly, the study does not necessarily indicate a country-wide decline in leopards between 2011 and 2019, despite the relatively high number of leopard trophy hunting quotas.
Even when taking into account that estimating leopard populations is complex, there is a glaring discrepancy between the estimated totals and densities in Botswana and Namibia (4,295 versus 11,733). In Botswana there are swathes of what should be prime leopard habitat: the Okavango Delta, Chobe, and Savuti for example, yet the density of leopards is approximately 0.7 per 100 square kilometres, while Namibia’s leopard density is almost twice that in a more arid country. Is it really likely that Namibia has a leopard population twice the density of Botswana’s? If so, this is surely something that warrants further investigation. With such massive uncertainty, how can the effects of trophy hunting (or indeed, any other anthropogenic offtake) be effectively monitored?
Experts believe that global leopard populations have likely declined by over 30% in the last three leopard generations – less than 30 years (Stein et al. 2016), resulting in their recent change in listing to “Vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List. Of course, this does not necessarily reflect the trend for every individual country within their range.
Leopards are notoriously secretive which in the past has led to the misplaced “assumption that their conservation status is assured” (Balme et al. 2010). Quotas should, in theory, always be based on the best available data and age restrictions should be in place to ensure that the offtake is sustainable (Packer et al. 2009). When that data is deficient, the approach should always be to err on the side of caution in line with the precautionary principle. This does not automatically translate to “when in doubt, don’t”, but rather suggests a high standard of proof required when setting quotas. Given how difficult it is to accurately count leopards, it is safe to assume that confidence intervals within estimates will always be large, even as counting and extrapolation methods become more accurate.
There are places, such as the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa, where leopard populations are accurately known. This is, however, a product of a high density of tourist vehicles over a relatively small area, with each individual leopard tracked down regularly. Guides are able to identify individuals on sight and this is recorded in a Pathera database that tracks every leopard sighting. However, this is clearly not possible in most places which is why an analysis of population trends is essential to inform adaptive management policies that allow for quotas to be changed depending on available data. As leopard densities differ tremendously depending on area and habitat, it is vital that long-term data is relevant and specific to the areas where trophy quotas are allocated.
It is interesting to note that the DWNP’s review of leopard hunting quotas makes no reference to adaptive management, though there is a promise of a planned national census of leopard populations.
We have had no response to our request for comment from the DWNP. It also required considerable digging to find Botswana’s most recent leopard data. These quotas clearly took planning and with trophy hunting a predictably emotive issue, it is hard to understand why the Botswana government has chosen such an opaque approach once again – particularly if they are confident that the data is reliable and that the quotas are sustainable. Empirical evidence surrounding leopard populations is one thing but analysing sustainability is another, longer-term process that needs to be subject to scientific scrutiny. Namibia has gone a long way towards demonstrating the sustainability of their hunting practices and acknowledging a willingness to adapt their strategies if necessary. Are we satisfied that the DWNP have done the same? Now that the hunting moratorium has ended, is there a plan in place to ensure it is done sustainably? Who should the onus fall on to prove that is the case?
Balme, G. A., Slotow, R. and Hunter, L. T., (2009) Impact of conservation interventions on the dynamics and persistence of a persecuted leopard (Panthera pardus) population. Biological Conservation, 142(11): 2681-2690.
Balme, G.A., Hunter, L.T., Goodman, P., Ferguson, H., Craigie, J. and Slotow, R., (2010) An adaptive management approach to trophy hunting of leopards Panthera pardus: a case study from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Biology and conservation of wild felids, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.341-352.
Jacobson, A.P., Gerngross, P., Lemeris Jr, J.R., Schoonover, R.F., Anco, C., Breitenmoser-Würsten, C., Durant, S.M., Farhadinia, M.S., Henschel, P., Kamler, J.F. and Laguardia, A., 2016. Leopard (Panthera pardus) status, distribution, and the research efforts across its range. PeerJ, 4, p.e1974.
Mann, G., Pitman, R., Broadfield, J., Taylor, J., Whittington-Jones, G., Rogan, M., Dubay, S., and Balme, G. (2018). South African Leopard Monitoring Project, Annual report for the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
Packer C, Kosmala M, Cooley H, Brink H, Pintea L, et al. (2009) Sport hunting predator control and conservation of large carnivores. PLoS One 4: e5941.
Richmond-Coggan, L., (2019), The Namibian Leopard: National Census and Sustainable Hunting Practices Study Report
Stein, A., Andreas, A., Aschenborn, O., Kastern, M., Andreas, A. and Thompson, S., (2011b) Namibian National Leopard Survey 2011 Final Report. Ministry of Environment and Tourism Internal Report, Windhoek, Namibia.
Stein, A.B., Athreya, V., Gerngross, P., Balme, G., Henschel, P., Karanth, U., Miquelle, D., Rostro, S., Kamler, J.F. and Laguardia, A., 2016. Panthera pardus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e. T15954A50659089. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.
Trouwborst, A., Loveridge, A.J. and Macdonald, D.W., 2020. Spotty data: managing international leopard (Panthera pardus) trophy hunting quotas amidst uncertainty. Journal of Environmental Law, 32(2), pp.253-278. https://academic.oup.com/jel/article-pdf/32/2/253/33482581/eqz032.pdf
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