Opinion post: Written by Maxine Gaines, wildlife biologist
The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has just this past week announced that it has lifted the countrywide two-year moratorium on leopard hunting in South Africa. They announced a quota for hunting of leopard to be allocated as follows: Five male leopards in Limpopo Province and two male leopards in KwaZulu-Natal. The leopards, according to the announcement, have to be males seven years or older. They claimed to have made this decision based on a determination by the Scientific Authority.
The information and data behind their decision has not been made public, although I do believe that under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), it should be made available to all interested and affected parties. I had the opportunity to examine some of the science behind the DEA’s decision – via an official report from the Scientific Authority to the DEA. I have to say that I am flabbergasted at the DEA’s decision. The Scientific Authority has done an incredible job of obtaining accurate population estimates and trends across much of the country in a very short space of time. The amount of money, effort and time that went into this study must have been monumental, and the scientific authority are to be commended. But the news is not good.
The official report states that leopard are in serious trouble in this country. A brief summary of the scientific report follows:
1. The population has shown an overall decline of 11% year on year. And this is in areas that are considered suitable leopard habitat, and where leopard are considered to be relatively well protected. The situation in more marginal habitat and where leopard are not adequately protected will in all likelihood be far worse. The reality is that these marginal and unprotected areas, form a large part of leopard range in South Africa.*
2. Of the reserves surveyed during the two-year study period, 70% showed declines in leopard populations, with 42% of them showing dramatic declines. Only 15 % showed stable populations.
3. In KwaZulu-Natal, where quota has been allocated to hunt 2 leopard, 71% of the reserves studied showed declines in leopard populations, with 43% showing dramatic declines. Only 29% of reserves sampled showed stable populations, although these were of small populations.
4. The situation in all other provinces is just as sobering, with the Limpopo Province also showing declines in leopard population density in 100% of Limpopo sites monitored during the study period (July 2017 to June 2018), with 38% of these sites exhibiting dramatic declines. And yet Limpopo has been allocated 5 leopards to be hunted. Given that the government said in its statement to the public that “It is important to note that the hunting of leopard is only undertaken in specified hunting zones where scientific evidence indicates stable leopard populations” I wonder where exactly in Limpopo they intend to hunt those five leopards?
How on Earth did the DEA decide that this was a good idea?
The report goes on to say that poaching for leopard skins for cultural and traditional uses has been the main cause of the population declines witnessed in KwaZulu-Natal and possibly throughout South Africa. They suggest that this problem receives urgent attention. One religious group in South Africa (which has over 4 million members/voters), uses leopard skins in their ceremonies. What does the government plan to do about this identified cause of leopard population reductions?
So, the DEA is told that poaching has had a dramatic effect on leopard populations across the board and that the population has continued the alarming decline during the two years of the hunting ban. And yet they see fit to place further pressure on the population by reinstating trophy hunting?
After having worked through this official report, I am concerned that the DEA seems to have little interest in the conservation of leopard in this country. Thankfully there are some true conservationists in government and at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), who have the best interests of our leopards at heart and have taken heed of the concerning results of the study undertaken by the Scientific Authority. I have to assume that they are under pressure from the DEA and the trophy hunting industry, and had no choice but to play a role in the reinstatement of the quota. These good people have ensured that the initial quota is low, but who is to say that this will not change for the worse next year, as they come under increased pressure?
I also believe that many conservationists (some in the Scientific Authority) who certainly have the best interests of leopard conservation at heart have been held to ransom for too long by the hunting industry. We hear so many stories, from hunters, game farm owners and conservationists alike, that if leopard hunting is not allowed, and farmers/hunters cannot make money from the leopards that pass through their properties by hunting them, then they will shoot them anyway and bury the evidence (the “shoot and shovel” mentality). This is a very real threat. Many of these game farmers deal in the death of wildlife all the time, so would think very little of getting rid of a leopard that is killing their wildlife stock and eroding their profit margins. Understandably, many conservationists are scared senseless by this scenario, and are consequently bullied into coming up with ways to justify quotas for the trophy hunting of leopard.
The damning conclusion I come to, after thoroughly analysing the official leopard population research report, is this: The science produced by world-renowned, respected conservation biologists that clearly shows a leopard population in dire straits, has been ignored completely by the government in determining leopard trophy hunting quotas.
Swanepoel, L. H., Lindsey, P., Somers, M. J., Van Hoven, W., & Dalerum, F. (2013). Extent and fragmentation of suitable leopard habitat in South Africa. Animal Conservation, 16(1), 41-50.
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