South Africa Gives Leopards a One-Year Break From Being Hunted

Conservationists argue that allowing hunting when the big cats’ population remains unknown is too risky.
(Photo: Daniele Fiasca/Getty Images)
Jan 26, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Hunters heading to South Africa to notch the “leopard” category on Africa’s “Big Five” big-game scorecard will have to take 2016 off.

That’s because the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs announced Tuesday it will not issue permits to hunt the beautiful big cat this season, effectively banning hunting for the year.

The announcement follows a recommendation by the country’s Scientific Authority that found that trophy hunting and the illegal fur trade are the main threats to the leopard’s survival, whose population remains unknown.

“The fact that [South Africa] is concerned about its leopard population enough to forgo the revenue those hunting permits would have generated in 2016 suggests they are serious about protecting their wildlife and ensuring its long-term survival,” said Kathleen Garrigan, a spokesperson for the African Wildlife Foundation.

South Africa is allowed to issue up to 150 permits a year to foreign leopard hunters, as approved under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But without a clear picture of the size and dispersal of South Africa’s leopard population, hunting puts the big cats at risk.

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“The fear is that trophy hunting may be putting undue pressure on the country’s leopards,” Garrigan said. “This would be in addition to other threats, such as habitat loss, conflict with humans, and demand for leopard skins.”

The secretive, mainly nocturnal cats roam from the desert to the rainforest. That wide range and their reclusive habits make leopards difficult for researchers to track and study.

Government figures showed 124 leopards were legally killed by trophy hunters in 2009 and 2010, with an additional 78 leopards killed under the “damage-causing animal” permit, which allows South African landowners to shoot nuisance leopards preying on their livestock.

How long South Africa will keep the ban in place is unknown. Officials are expected to reevaluate it at the end of this year, once hunting operators have had a chance to draft new standards and methods to ensure CITES compliance.

Zambia imposed a ban on lion and leopard hunting in 2013 but lifted it in 2015. Officials claim the country couldn’t fund its wildlife programs after losing its share of the multimillion-dollar trophy hunting industry. Hunters will pay as much as $25,000 for a shot at a lion, and that revenue can benefit local communities and wildlife conservation efforts.

But the billions of dollars from nonlethal wildlife tourism dwarf the millions of dollars African countries can make off foreign hunters.

“I don't want to devalue [legal sport hunting] because it brings dollars to the government,” Jeff Flocken, North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told NPR in 2015. “But it pales in comparison to all the people who go to Africa to responsibly view wildlife. Nature tourism generates 13 to 15 times more revenue than trophy hunting.”