Are South Africa’s leopards in trouble?

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Are South Africa’s leopards in trouble?

Conservationists are concerned that leopard populations may be under more threat than ever before. Once upon a time, leopards could be found all over South Africa – from the vast open expanses of the Free State to the Drakensberg Mountains, throughout the Northern Cape and beyond. Despite being opportunistic hunters and occurring in all biomes of South Africa, South Africa’s leopards have become extinct in 67% of the country – particularly in areas of high human density. “Leopards are being indiscriminately slaughtered, without the proper protection from government,” says Fred Berrangé, founder of the Leopard Conservation Project (LCP). “Time is no longer a luxury we can afford in leopard conservation.”
South Africa's leopards can be found predominantly in and around Greater Kruger.

A leopard sleeps in the prestigious Sabi Sand Game Reserve.

 
Leopards are notoriously secretive and it is difficult to get exact readings on numbers. But, says Berrangé, “all research conducted on leopards supports the fact they are declining at an alarming rate in their natural habitat outside of wildlife reserves.” While South Africa’s leopards are better protected within national parks and nature reserves, 68% of remaining leopard habitat is outside legally protected areas. “Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, prey depletion and conflict with people are some of the biggest factors threatening leopards at the moment,” says Prof Daniel Parker, associate professor at the University of Mpumalanga, who oversees a number of leopard research projects in Southern Africa. Leopards are known to kill each other when vying for territory, and many are killed by other natural threats, such as snakes, disease and malnutrition. A study conducted in South Africa by researchers from Durham University showed leopard density in Limpopo’s Soutpansberg Mountains had decreased by 44% between 2012 and 2016. “This is especially alarming considering that in 2008 this area had one of the highest leopard population densities in Africa,” says Durham’s Dr Samual Williams.”
 
South African leopard plays behind an ant hill and catches site of the camera.

A leopard stares at the camera through an ant hill.

Illegal human activities like shooting, snaring and poisoning are the leading causes of death among the leopards tracked in the Soutpansberg. “If things don’t change, we predict leopards will essentially disappear from the area by about 2020,” says Williams. To make matters worse, many believe the current restrictions on leopard hunting haven’t stopped the killing of leopards. “Farmers with livestock who had leopards present on their farms now often resort to killing leopards, because there is no incentive to tolerate them and the losses of their livestock,” says Simon Naylor, manager of &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, who was involved with the MunYaWana Leopard Project set up around Phinda with Panthera. Through a lucrative 10-year leopard research and awareness project, Phinda was able to double and stabilize a previously dwindling population of South Africa’s leopards. Together with Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, interventions were set up for sustainable leopard trophy hunting and a leopard management programme for cattle farmers and ranchers. The Leopard Conservation Project is also working closely with farmers, conservation bodies and other research organizations to address areas of concern regarding leopards, their habitat and ways to manage them effectively. The LCP has successfully captured, transported and relocated 270 leopards over the last 18 years, removing them from high-risk areas to spaces where they can be better protected. In 2016, leopards were uplisted to Vulnerable on the global IUCN Red List and the Red List of Mammals of South Africa, emphasizing concern over their conservation status.
South Africa's leopards are most easily seen during the night as they lie in the shade of the bush during the day.

A leopard lies in the shade during the midday heat.

Written by Taryn Arnott Van Jaarsveld Copyrights 2018 Safari News. All rights reserved. The material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. 
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