African Leopard – Endangered Species

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Petition – “This is our chance to stop leopard trophy hunting and ban the U.S. import of leopard parts from Southern Africa.”

In July 2016, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Center for Biological Diversity and The Fund for Animals filed a legal petition with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to extend the full protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to African leopards.

The USFWS is taking comment (until 30 January 2017) on the issue of adding the leopard to the ESA, so please participate. If the African leopard is (or indeed all leopard species are) placed on the ESA, then this will curtail American trophy hunters from ‘legally’ importing leopard trophies from leopard hunts.

The African leopard (Panthera pardus) is CITES Appendix I listed, but hunting is currently permitted within CITES ‘approved’ hunting quotas – with the 2016 quota of 1,725 leopard lives distributed for trophies as follows: Democratic Republic of Congo – 5; Ethiopia – 50; Mozambique – 120; Namibia – 250; United Republic of Tanzania – 500; Zambia – 300; Zimbabwe – 500.

American trophy hunters have taken at least 300 leopard lives per year for trophies, so listing the leopard on the ESA will undoubtedly help to save leopards being lost to hunting. Of course, the only way to enforce this outside of range states with their CITES hunting quotas is to restrict trophy importation via mechanisms such as the ESA, but sadly trophy import ‘issues’ may, or may not ensure the kill is not taken in the first place.

The ‘abundance’ (or lack thereof) of leopards is virtually unknowable – the leopard is highly elusive and it would take vast resources to count every one in existence – but still hunting quotas exist. So, any reference to leopard population numbers is based on modelled estimates (or guesstimates) – any proposal to base hunting quotas on leopard species numbers is scientifically subject to risk/confidence levels that the source data cannot reliably substantiate. The concept of the cautionary principle is required, always erring on the pessimistic scenario, rather than a best case scenario to try to justify a desire to perpetuate a delusion “there are plenty left to kill.”

An example of such flawed/biased ‘thinking’ was evident in 2011 (“Hunters Hold Wildlife to Ransom,” Africa Geographic, 15 November 2015) when in partnership with Safari Club International (SCI), Namibia launched a census “to manage the sustainability of the leopard population.” A questionnaire was distributed to 1,500 farmers to assess the distribution and relative abundance of leopards throughout Namibia. There were only 400 replies. These, however, were extrapolated, which produced a flawed national estimate of leopards of over 14,000.

It should be noted that SCI and its ilk, promote leopard trophy killing as a badge of honour, not as any scientifically proven, altruistic endeavour, but encourages the taking of leopards and other big cats as a ‘must have’ for any worthy hunter seeking peer group acceptance/recognition. This is not a culture any field based conservationist would recognise as an ethos likely to promote any given target species’ sustainability/conservation.

Furthermore, based upon such flawed leopard population data, Namibia has a CITES trophy hunted export quota of 250 leopards per year – a questionable figure, according to experts of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), because it is based on “insufficient ecological information and lack of scientific data.” Unsurprisingly the pro-hunting census-takers recommended the quota “remain at the current level.”

Despite the leopard (Panthera pardus) receiving CITES Appendix I protection, barring any commercial trade in the species, the trade in hunting trophies is still CITES sanctioned, therefore perpetuating the taking of leopard lives for trophies. Where hunting quotas do not exist (ie. South Africa) a leopard can be sought out that conjures the illusion of it being a “problem animal that had to be killed by a trophy hunter that happened to be in the area” – thereby, CITES Appendix I protection can be out manoeuvred it would seem by such farcical contrived “problem leopards” and flawed base data.

The argument used that trophy hunting income is essential to ensure local communities are encouraged to tolerate wildlife is scientifically unproven – as little as 3% of hunting income (reference “The $200 Million Question,” Economists at Large, 2013) trickles down to local communities, so wildlife is treated by communities regardless of any such meagre trickle down, sometimes well, sometimes not. In terms of ‘saving’ habitat, there might be some habitat protection offered by hunting concessions (often sold to the highest bidder, regardless of any conservation credentials). But poorly regulated trophy hunting (commonly driven by profiteering and corruption) does little to ensure there is any sustainability of the target species; hunting might ‘save’ habitat by default, but not the inhabitants, with no discernible ‘best practice’ that gives priority for scientifically verifiable sustainability/conservation as trophy hunting’s core aim.

The IUCN Red List leopard population data that does exist (despite the potential flaws outlined at the start of my comments) indicate that across sub-Saharan Africa, a decline of over 30% has been noted over the past 25 years, with some 67% of the leopards’ historic range lost. All of this data points to a downward trend, with threats and pressures that are unlikely to relent – such as habitat loss due to human population growth/land demand. To put the projected human demand into perspective, Africa has the fastest population growth rate in the world (UN 2015, pp. 3, 9; UNEP 2012a, p. 2); future population growth in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to be large and rapid (UN 2013, p. 9). By 2100, Angola, Burundi, DRC, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia are projected to increase by at least five-fold (UN 2015, p. 9).

Therefore, hunting concessions are unlikely to be commercially viable long into the future to ‘save’ habitat, let alone any claimed species sustainability/conservation. Trophy hunting has little (if anything) to offer in terms of short, medium or indeed long term benefits that are going to help the leopard, or any other so threatened species.

Therefore, the leopard species needs all the help and protection it can get – a place on the Endangered Species List is one much needed step that would help to ensure the species has a chance for survival against the many threats it faces.

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