Throughout their range leopards are in rapid decline, having disappeared from North Africa, much of the Middle East and Asia. Declines have been so severe that the species is now considered vulnerable to extinction. No comprehensive estimates of the number of leopards remaining in the wild exist. – UCT News

About half of the planet’s remaining leopards are found in Africa. They can be found over large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including most of South Africa, but excluding the Greater Karoo basin. They are adapted to many habitats and can be seen from arid, desert regions to humid forests and mountainous areas. 

It is estimated that a small, isolated population of only 8 – 12 Cape leopards in dire need of protection still survives in the Botrivier to Cape Infanta region. PHOTO: Ron Magill

However, only about 20% of South Africa is presently suitable habitat for leopards, but it is fragmented, making it less ideal for leopards with wide-ranging territories. Currently 68% of leopard habitat is outside of protected areas, where leopards are most at risk. 

If leopards are so wide-spread, why are they so close to extinction?  Predictably, the answer is – wait for it – humans beings.

The critical threats globally are ongoing and include habitat loss and fragmentation, prey depletion, conflict with people, unsustainable trophy hunting, poaching for skins and body parts, and indiscriminate killing. One of the main threats to leopards in South Africa is the illegal skin trade.

Ever since Westerners arrived in Africa, carnivores, including leopards, have been hunted as ‘vermin’. The so-called ‘human-wildlife conflict’ has many causes. Farming practices in many parts of the country have replaced wildlands with farmlands and wild prey with domestic animals. This situation naturally leads to predation of the substitute prey. Retaliation by farmers has traditionally been swift, indiscriminate and lethal.

The leopard has the most varied diet of larger carnivores and can include beetles in buffalo dung, small mammals and even other carnivores. Leopards preferentially select prey weighing 10 – 40 kg. In the African savannas, the impala is an essential and stable prey source for leopards and form their staple diet. Although leopards can kill prey many times their size, they rarely do so. They hunt alone and cannot afford to get injured in attacking large prey.

Leopards are not the same size across South Africa. In the Kruger National Park, the mean weight is 58 kg for male leopards and 37.5 kg for females. The leopards from the coastal mountain areas of the Western Cape are much smaller, with the males weighing on average 31 kg and the females 21 kg. That’s about the size of a largish dog. 

The smaller predator size reflects the smaller prey size in the Cape as mountain fynbos cannot sustain anything larger than a grysbok. More nutritious lowland vegetation that historically supported antelope as large as kudu and eland has all been replaced by farmlands and human settlement. 

Incidentally, contrary to common belief, Cape leopards do not generally prey on baboons. They are no match for a troop, protected by an alpha male. They would instead take their chances with a porcupine, though avoiding quills is not easy.

Leopards north of the Cape are immensely strong and can haul quite large prey up a tree to safeguard it from other carnivores like lions and hyenas. The smaller Cape leopards do not carry their prey into trees. Firstly, there are few trees in mountain fynbos (except in isolated kloofs); and secondly, no lions or hyenas remain in this ‘sanitised’ environment. 

In general, leopards breed at about 3 – 4 years of age. Litter size varies from 1 – 3 cubs that will stay with the mother for up to 18 months to learn the fine art of hunting. The female will breed again after about two years.  Cub mortality is high in most areas and can vary between 35% and 90%. Even protected populations suffer up to 65% juvenile mortality. 

Add active prosecution of leopards in unprotected areas, and it is not difficult to see that leopards are in serious trouble. Hunting, gin traps, snares and poisoning are routinely employed, especially in retribution for real and perceived livestock loss.

In South Africa, privately owned land is extremely important for the conservation of leopards, and carnivores in general. However, human-carnivore conflict and the killing of ‘problem animals’ are limiting carnivore numbers on private land.

Are farmers using the correct methods to protect their livestock? Usually, not. Research has shown that non-lethal methods of protecting livestock from all predators are not only more effective but also cheaper. Successful strategies include employing protective guard animals such as dogs, donkeys or alpacas, fitting protective collars on livestock, secure corralling at night and even traditional herding. A combination of these strategies has a very high success rate. 

Information sharing and support of stock farmers to adopt these nonlethal strategies is essential if leopards are to survive. Trophy hunting is another thing altogether. It is highly lucrative and taps into a deep psychological predisposition in humans. An additional threat is the symbolism associated with leopard skin adornment, used for traditional ceremonial occasions. It leads to high losses in KZN and other places. 

What do we know about leopards in our neck of the woods? 

Outstanding work is being done in the Southern Cape and Boland by two organisations concerned with leopard conservation – the Cape Leopard Trust and the Landmark Foundation. Both organisations work tirelessly to gain information about leopard numbers and ranges through camera traps, dedicated research and information sharing.  

The Landmark Foundation estimates only between 8 and 12 leopards from Botrivier to Cape Infanta. This population is in dire need of sufficient protection to increase survival of individuals, as it has very limited to no access to the northern populations. Losing just one individual here has an enormous impact on genetic loss in this small, isolated population. 

The key to the protection of any species, including leopards, is to maintain a balanced, healthy ecosystem that provides habitat for all species in the web of life.

Whale Coast Conservation is privileged to host Dr Andrew Baxter from the Cape Leopard Trust at our next inspirational talk on Zoom on Thursday 12 November at 6 pm. He will chat to us about leopards and what, if anything, we can do to be part of the solution to predator decline.

About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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