Saturday, August 01, 2009

South African leopard study proves big cat conservation works

Written by Rhishja Larson
Published on July 29th, 2009
Posted in About Animals, About Science, In Africa

In the most comprehensive study on leopards ever conducted, researchers confirm that the leopard population at Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal bounced back after the launch of a major conservation program.

According to the results of a meticulous six-year field study led by researchers from Panthera, published this week in scientific journal Biological Conservation, strategic and science-based conservation can save big cats.

The Munyawana Leopard Research Project at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, guided by Dr. Luke Hunter and Guy Balme from Panthera, in collaboration with &Beyond, began in April 2002 and has been instrumental in the long-term conservation of local leopard populations.

The research is the most comprehensive study on leopards ever conducted, specifically in terms of:

* Length of study: Six years
* Number of leopards collared: 64 (the highest recorded in previous studies was 31)
* Outputs generated from the research: Over 13,000 locations logged and more than 1,600 direct leopard observations made.

Effects of hunting on the leopard population

At the outset of the research, a high number of leopards were falling victim to both legal and illegal hunting. A controlled quota of leopards were allowed to trophy hunters. Farmers were also killing the big cats because they posed a a threat to livestock and wild game. Consequently, 23 of the 26 leopards tracked between 2002 and 2005 were killed.

The study's lead author, Guy Balme noted that "Many of those leopards were killed by humans and by 2005 we realized that the numbers dying at the hands of people were too high to sustain. We designed a conservation plan meant to reduce the worst of the problems in the hopes of bringing the leopards back."

While the project did not seek to reduce the legal quota of hunted leopards, it did include reducing the number of leopards hunted around Phinda and the adjacent Mkhuze Game Reserve.

Panthera's Executive Director, Luke Hunter, explained "We never sought to reduce the quota, but we argued that it needed to be distributed more fairly to avoid having all the hunts in one population."

In order to disperse the hunting pressure on the leopard population, new regulations were enacted in 2006. A ban on killing female and adolescent leopards by sport hunters, and a plan to help farmers avoid problems with leopards to reduce the reasons why leopards were killed, were put into place.

Increase in leopard population

The increase in leopard population by 2008 proved that the plan was working. Not only were leopards living longer, but people were killing fewer of them.

A key finding was that by reducing the number of leopards killed helped to re-establish stability in the population, providing females with a "safe window" in which to raise their cubs.

It was also found that the leopard population had previously been put into constant chaos by the turnover caused by people killing the leopards. Thus, female leopards began to conceive more often and raise more cubs once the environment stabilized.

Balme explained the importance of resident males in the leopard population: "Male leopards don't help raise cubs, but they do provide essential security for `their' females, protecting them from new males which routinely kill their predecessors' cubs to improve their mating opportunities. With constant killing of resident males, females were trapped in a cycle where residents were not around long enough for the cubs to be raised."

Accountability in conservation

Dr. Luke Hunter believes conservationists must be held accountable for results - whether or not projects succeed or fail. "As conservationists, we can no longer afford to continue with the same feel-good projects and ideas unless we can show success - or if not, understand why they fail. Simply carrying on the same path without evaluating whether the cats are better off is not conservation. We have to be able to produce hard results for what we do."

Learn more about The Munyawana Leopard Research Project:


Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at

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