The leopards

The leopard, Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758), is the smallest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera, the other three being the tiger, lion and jaguar. It is the most widespread of all wild cat species and is well known for its ability to occupy a range of habitats, from deserts and mountains to jungles and swamps. There is huge variation in coat colour, pattern and body size across the leopard’s range. Head and body length is between 95 and 165 cm, and the tail reaches 60 to 110 cm. Males are about 30% larger than females, weighing 30 to 91 kg compared to 23 to 60 kg for females. However, both male and female leopards in the Cederberg are significantly smaller than leopards anywhere else in Africa with the average mass of adult males being 35 kg and 20,5 kg for adult females.

The leopard’s IUCN Red List status was increased from Least concern (2002) to Near Threatened (NT) in 2008. The justification being that although they have a wide range and are locally common in some parts of Africa and tropical Asia, they are declining in large parts of their range. This is mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and hunting for trade and pest control. These threats may be significant enough that the species could soon qualify for Vulnerable under criterion A.

A Cape leopard photographed by a remote camera. Picture: The Cape Leopard Trust.

 

Geographic range

The leopard occurs across most of sub-Saharan Africa, as remnant populations in North Africa, and then in the Arabian peninsula and Sinai/Judean Desert (Egypt/Israel/Jordan), south-western and eastern Turkey, and through Southwest Asia and the Caucasus into the Himalayan foothills, India, China and the Russian Far East, as well as on the islands of Java and Sri Lanka (Nowell and Jackson 1996; Sunquist and Sunquist 2002; Hunter et al. in press).

In sub-Saharan Africa, leopards remain widely, albeit now patchily, distributed within historical limits (see Hunter et al. in press, and references therein). Ray et al. (2005) estimated that leopards have disappeared from at least 36.7% of their historical range in Africa. The most marked range loss has been in the Sahel belt, as well as in Nigeria and South Africa. They have been locally extirpated from areas densely populated with people or where habitat conversion is extreme (Hunter et al. in press). They are likely extinct on Zanzibar, where there have been no confirmed records since 1996 (Hunter et al. in press).

 

 

Population

The leopard is an adaptable, widespread species that nonetheless has many threatened subpopulations. While still numerous and even thriving in some marginal habitats from which other big cats have disappeared in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, in North Africa leopards are on the verge of extinction.

There are no reliable continent-wide estimates of population size in Africa, and the most commonly cited estimate of over 700,000 leopards in Africa (Martin and de Meulenaar 1988) is flawed. In India, based on pugmark censuses (a methodology which has been criticized as inaccurate), 9,844 leopards were estimated in 2001. Many populations are believed to be increasing (Singh 2005), and there are high levels of human-leopard conflict (Singh et al. 2008).

The Cape leopard is a vulnerable and isolated population that occurs at low density in the mountains of the eastern, northern and western Cape of South Africa. The leopard currently fills the role of apex predator in the Cederberg and the rest of the Western Cape; however, its conservation status remains uncertain. The species is regularly removed or exterminated from farms with little knowledge of population or genetic status, whether these removals are sustainable or whether the factors giving rise to conflict are established.

The population trend is decreasing.

Habitat and ecology

The leopard has the widest habitat tolerance of any Old World felid, ranging from rainforest to desert. In Africa, they are most successful in woodland, grassland savanna and forest but also occur widely in mountain habitats, coastal scrub, swampy areas, shrubland, semi-desert and desert. They range from sea level to as much as 4,600 m on Mt Kenya (Hunter et al. in press). In Southwest and Central Asia, leopards formerly occupied a range of habitats, but now are confined chiefly to the more remote montane and rugged foothill areas. Through India and Southeast Asia, Leopard are found in all forest types, from tropical rainforest to the temperate deciduous and alpine coniferous (up to 5,200 m in the Himalaya), and also occur in dry scrub and grasslands (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

Leopards have extremely catholic diets including more than 90 species in sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from arthropods to large antelope up to the size of adult male Eland Tragelaphus oryx (Hunter et al. in press). Densities vary with habitat, prey availability, and degree of threat, from fewer than one per 100 km² to over 30 per 100 km², with highest densities obtained in protected East and southern African mesic woodland savannas (Hunter et al. in press).

 

Major threats

Throughout Africa, the major threats to Leopard are habitat conversion and intense persecution, especially in retribution for real and perceived livestock loss (Ray et al.2005). In intact rainforest, the chief threat to Leopards is probably competition with human hunters for prey; the tremendous volume of wild meat harvests denudes forests of prey and may drive localized extinctions. Nonetheless, Leopards are somewhat tolerant of habitat conversion, and may persist close to large human populations provided they have suitable cover and prey (Hunter et al. in press).

Leopards come into conflict with people across their range. A rapidly increasing threat to Leopards is the poisoning of carcasses targeting carnivores, either as a means of predator control or incidentally.

A leopard caught in a old steel leg trap or gin trap, creating very bad injuries. Picture: The Cape Leopard Trust.

 

The impact of trophy hunting on populations is unclear, but may have impacts at the demographic and population level, especially when females are shot. In Tanzania, which allows only males to be hunted, females comprised 28.6% of 77 trophies shot between 1995 and 1998 (Spong et al. 2000).

Skins and canines are still widely traded domestically in some central and West African countries where parts are used in traditional rituals and sold openly in villages and cities (Hunter et al. in press). Djibouti is an important conduit for Leopard skins from East Africa that are bought mainly by French military personnel and carried illegally to Europe.

In West Asia, small leopard subpopulations are threatened primarily by habitat fragmentation, killing in defence of livestock, and poaching for trade (Habibi 2004, Breitenmoser et al. 2006, Breitenmoser et al. 2007).

In Indo-Malaya, leopards are threatened primarily by habitat loss (deforestation) as well as poaching for illegal trade (Nowell and Jackson 1996). In India, leopards are feared for their attacks on people (Singh 2005).

Conservation actions

Legal international traffic is limited largely to exports of skins and hunting trophies under a CITES Appendix I quota system by 13 African countries (2005 CITES quota is 2,590). Leopards are protected under national legislation throughout most of their range (Nowell and Jackson 1996). In Africa, although Leopards occur in numerous protected areas across their range, the majority of the population occurs outside of protected areas, necessitating a need for improved conflict mitigation measures (including livestock management, conflict resolution) (Hunter et al. in press). In West Asia, leopards are essentially restricted to protected areas, many of which are too small to support viable populations, and need expansion through buffer zones and connectivity through corridors (Breitenmoser et al. 2006, 2007). In Indo-Malaya and China, leopards need better protection from illegal trade in skins and bones (Nowell 2007). Leopards are protected in Afghanistan having recently been placed on the country?s Protected Species List (2009), prohibiting all hunting and trading of the species within Afghanistan.

In the mountains of the Cape, in addition to the “hard science” research component, the Cape Leopard Trust is also actively involved in the training and empowering of local community residents as well as working with farming communities to find ways to minimize depredation of livestock by the Cape’s threatened and persecuted predator population.The objective of finding solutions for farmers who encounter “problems” with wildlife in their area includes encouraging the view that the tourism and conservation value of wildlife exceeds the perceived threat to livestock. Publicity created in this regard, together with the CLT’s promotion of Anatolian shepherd dogs to conservation-minded farmers has significantly altered the views and perceptions of other farmers and landowners in the existing study area.

 Anatolian shepherd dog guarding sheep. Picture: dogbreedworld.com

Sources: IUCN Red List, The Cape Leopard Trust

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