Long live the leopard

Leopard populations are at risk across their range. Research conducted by the Limpopo Leopard Project has resulted in an adaptive management system for leopard conservation. Carnivore ecologist, Ross Pitman, spoke to Nan Smith about the system.

Long live the leopard
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Territorial and solitary, leopards are nocturnal hunters, most active between sunset and sunrise. They are highly secretive – masters of the art of using cover to cloak their presence. They can adapt to a change in circumstances and will maintain their populations, providing that ample food and cover is available and they are not targeted by nearby human populations.

Habitat loss and conflict with rural populations are currently the primary drivers of declining leopard numbers, and, due to over-hunting in prime leopard habitat, the hunting of females, and the failure to consider alternative forms of leopard mortality, the legal offtake of leopard has become largely unsustainable.

The Limpopo Leopard Project, a collaborative effort between the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET), global cat conservation organisation Panthera and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, aims to ensure the conservation and sustainability of leopard numbers. It has conducted research into adaptive leopard management, the outcomes of which have resulted in the creation of a regulatory framework, which includes a new permit system for leopard trophy hunting.

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The historical permit system for trophy hunting in Limpopo lacked a scientific basis and required a major overhaul. “Limpopo’s conservation authority originally focused management efforts at the district level, but our research demonstrated that it makes more scientific sense to manage at a smaller catchment-based scale,” says Ross Pitman, carnivore ecologist and postgraduate researcher coordinating the project.

Quotas and hunting zones
Sustainable annual quotas are determined by running complex statistical models that incorporate hunting information and leopard demographic data to produce management strategies. These are then applied to hunting zones across Limpopo. “The beauty of the new management system is that it’s adaptive, so hunting zones will change depending on what’s happening to the leopard population every year,” Pitman explains.

To apply these management interventions, leopard population trends must be established and examined annually. Each hunting zone is allocated a CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permit on a yearly basis. This is assigned to a hunting outfitter by using a random, electronic draw system. The size of the property influences the likelihood of winning a draw.

Permits are non-transferable and hunting rights cannot be used in another zone. Doing so otherwise would result in unsustainable offtake.

Regulating the kill
The trophy cannot be exported unless the required information about the hunt is submitted by way of an online hunt return form.
“Hunting outfitters are required to provide all information including GPS co-ordinates, photographs, measurements and hunting methods used. This information is sent directly to a secure online database where we can assess the hunt,” says Pitman.

This year, LEDET implemented new regulations stipulating that hunt return forms are mandatory and hunting outfitters may not hunt female leopards. If these conditions are not adhered to, LEDET will prohibit export of the trophy.
Leopard hunting is permitted between specific hunt periods for 2015. These comprise:

  • A primary hunt, expiring on 31 July;
  • A backup hunt, expiring on 30 September;
  • An open hunt, expiring on 31 December.
  • Permits are valid for a four-week period from the date of issue. 

“If the hunting outfitter has not hunted the leopard in the allotted time, the permit is transferred to the next outfitter in the next hunt period,” says Pitman. Permits were allocated by the middle of January this year, with applications lodged using a new online submission system. Despite some teething issues, there has been continual and constructive communication between the Limpopo Leopard Project, LEDET and the hunting industry, Pitman reports.

“The new system has worked so well in Limpopo that we are hoping to implement it at a national level,” he says.

Males vs females 
Presently the hunting industry tends to select younger males and females – a practice that favours population declines.
“We would prefer hunting outfitters to select old males (seven years and older) that have already made a genetic contribution to the population,” says Pitman. Research has shown that leopard populations remain relatively stable if offtake is applied using this principle, and the hunting of females in Limpopo is therefore forbidden. The seven-year-age category is an attainable goal for the industry, and ultimately a winning formula that would facilitate sustainable hunting.

Although male leopards do not actively contribute to the rearing of offspring, the presence of old males assists in maintaining a stable leopard population by reducing intraspecific fighting and infanticide (the killing of cubs by a non-related individual). Through sport hunting, South Africa exports 150 leopard trophies annually, providing financial incentives for local leopard conservation. However, given that carnivore populations are difficult to monitor and certain hunting practices can lead to unsustainable offtake, the current situation is not without its problems.

Research conducted by the project suggests that Limpopo’s leopard are facing intense human-mediated pressure, mostly from illegal hunting and problem-animal control. “Despite difficulties with budget and capacity, LEDET have been fully supportive of our research,” says Pitman. “They were presented with robust data that showed clear trends, and they’ve moved positively in response.”

Identifying old males is not difficult. Features include a prominent dewlap, poor condition of the ears and extensive facial scarring. “For the 2015 hunting season, if you can see testes, then the cat is a viable trophy. LEDET hasn’t implemented an age limit just yet, but stricter regulations in the future are likely once we have had a chance to educate hunters.”

Ross Pitman

Studying population trends
Hunters make use of trail cameras, a technique which helps with sexing animals. To establish population trends, seven camera-trapping sites were set up throughout Limpopo. They are operational for two months of the year in a series of staggered observations.

“We continue to capture thousands of photographs, not only of leopard but of many other species, and in some cases, of poachers,” says Pitman. The camera traps must be strategically spaced so that all leopard in the sampled area are photographed. The subsequent recorded data is used to estimate leopard density in the area.

Pitman has coordinated this research for over two years, and says that it is a long-term research project that will hopefully continue for a decade. ”We’d like to keep it going for as long as LEDET and the hunting industry are willing to work with us.”
As part of the drive to acquire as much information as possible, landowners and residents are asked to provide information on leopard sightings through questionnaires, online surveys and by uploading photographs to the project’s website.

“From this, we can map leopard distribution across the province on an annual basis, which feeds into the adaptive nature of our research,” explains Pitman. Leopard distribution is negatively correlated with human density: where human populations are high, leopard densities are low. Bush cover, prey availability and habitat are all factors in the selection of an area by leopard. The amount of time hunting outfitters take to find leopard also provides useful information.

“Hunter effort is an important metric that we can use to model leopard population trends,” says Pitman. “If hunters are struggling to find a suitable leopard trophy, it tells us something about the larger population, and might hint of a population under pressure.

“To conserve the species, all parties must collaborate. This is a positive action for the future of the leopard.”

For more information on the Limpopo Leopard Project and trophy hunting regulations in the province, visit