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South Africa’s Enigmatic Big Cats Under Growing Threat

Leopard and cheetah are two of southern Africa’s most enigmatic cat species. But both are under growing threat from livestock farmers, trophy hunters and both the legal and illegal trade in wildlife species. Now conservationists are pushing for tighter controls. The beauty of leopards and the significance attached to their craftiness and power are demonstrated...

Leopard and cheetah are two of southern Africa’s most enigmatic cat species. But both are under growing threat from livestock farmers, trophy hunters and both the legal and illegal trade in wildlife species. Now conservationists are pushing for tighter controls.

The beauty of leopards and the significance attached to their craftiness and power are demonstrated by the extent to which their skins feature in the tribal dress of kings and chiefs around southern Africa. At the same time their stealth has allowed them to move about and survive even close to built-up areas. But in livestock farming areas in particular they often fall victim to gin traps, hunting and poison.

A Zulu prince wearing leopard skin regalia dances with Swazi princesses at his wedding. (NGS stock photo by Volkmar Wentzel)


A non-governmental organization called the Landmark Foundation has made it its business to look after leopard conservation in particular. It recently staged a symbolic burning of gin traps, noting that these exceedingly cruel instruments that clasp their toothed clamps on the paws of animals had been responsible for most of the 38 leopard killings since 2004 in the Cape mountains in South Africa’s south.

But it is also gaining co-operation from farmers, such as that which had led to the capture this week of a leopard just outside the Cape coastal town of Hermanus. The animal was caught after a farmer notified the environmental authorities of its presence. It was fitted with a GPS collar before being released as part of a broader scheme already involving 22 other leopards to track their movements and gain more information on their habits.

Leopards at Mala Mala Game Reserve (NGS stock photo by Chris Johns).


Cheetahs, again, are admired for their grace and speed. As the fastest land animal, capable of going from standstill to 56 mph (90 km/h) in three seconds and of reaching speeds of about 68 mph (110 km/h), it makes for an exhilarating spectacle as they chase after their prey, using their tails to maintain their balance even when kicking up bursts of dirt when doing hairpin turns.

Being the prolific hunters that they are, they, too, often fall victim to livestock farmers and even wildlife ranchers whose fastest antelope often find it hard to escape their pursuit. With only about 12 000 estimated to be surviving in the wild, one of their other drawbacks is a poor genetic diversity and a propensity for disease and unsuccessful breeding. Part of the breeding programs for the species involves mixing their genetic diversity as much as possible, to strengthen their bloodline and build resistance.

An African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) climbs a tall termite mound to scan his territory for predators and prey (NGS stock photo by Chris Johns).


Considering the odds the two species are up against, mostly as a result of constant human encroachment on their territories, it is odd that not only the illegal trade in the two species, but the legal trade as well, have been impacting on their populations. This is what the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), one of South Africa’s oldest and most respected conservation organizations, has now warned about.

It is for the same reason, too, that it wants the CITES hunting quota for leopard to be better monitored and controlled. It wants no such trophy quota at all for cheetah because of the more seriously endangered state of the species.

It says in a statement issued in Johannesburg, where it is based, that a report has just become available on a workshop it held last year to determine whether current South African hunting quotas for leopards and the lack of any hunting quotas for cheetah were justified.

On cheetah the finding is that the legal trade in the species in South Africa is poorly regulated with some so-called “breeding centres” sourcing their animals from the wild. The trade is fraught with permit irregularities and loopholes.

The conclusion was indeed already reached at a workshop which the organisation held in 2009 in co-operation with the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group Southern Africa (CBSG) that the removal of cheetah through uncontrolled live trade and products, together with illegal hunting, were major threats to the species’ survival.

The two organizations also evaluated the status of leopard in South Africa in 2005. It collated all available data so that informed recommendations could be made on the management and conservation of the species. This was after CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) had the previous year doubled the quota for leopard hunting from 75 to 150. This was done without adequate information on the size and trends of the national leopard population and while evidence suggested that a significant number of leopards were being illegally hunted.

A leopard in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana, adjacent to South Africa (NGS stock by Jodi Cobb).


Among the recommendations formulated for leopards at last year’s workshop are that legal and illegal hunting be better monitored, that leopard populations be constantly assessed, that a national management plan be established for the species and that better relationships be encouraged between stakeholders.

A cheetah cub with a bloodstained muzzle (NGS stock photo by Chris Johns)


South Africa has no CITES quota for cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), even though the wildlife-ranching and trophy-hunting industries have been calling for this to change. But most of the cheetah population occurs outside protected areas on privately owned cattle and wildlife ranches. As a result, conflict with landowners is common. With little known about the status and growth trends of the cheetah population, the legal trade in live animals appears to be a major threat to cheetah survival as well.

It was found that it would be inadvisable to issue a quota for cheetah hunting at this time due to inadequate knowledge of the population size and trends of the species, inadequate information on the scale and impacts of illegal harvesting, and a feeling that a quota for trophy hunting of cheetah should not be issued until problems associated with the trophy hunting of leopards are resolved. It was also agreed that there should be better regulation of the captive industry.

The EWT says the report findings have been accepted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the central government’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).

To address the threats to leopard and cheetah, EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme, in conjunction with SANBI, are implementing a project to assess the scale and impacts of consumptive utilization of leopards and cheetah, and their body parts. Program Manager Kelly Marnewick says: “We plan to work closely with all stakeholders including government, NGOs and all other industry members, to ensure that trade in these two species is managed in a sustainable way and that the populations of these key species in South Africa thrive.”

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Meet the Author

Leon Marshall
Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won several awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.