Can SA save its leopards? New study shows how, with help from faux fur, special corridors

Written on 10/20/2020
Linda van Tilburg

Majestic - and vulnerable. BizNews talks to Dr Vincent Naudé about 'wildlife corridors', a proposed plan to aid the leopard population.

According to global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera – that has classified leopards as vulnerable – the stealthy, spotted cats have vanished from 65% of their historic range in Africa. Trophy hunting and the use of traditional regalia are contributing to the decline of leopards in Southern Africa. Inbreeding has also been problematic. Dr Vincent Naudé, from the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) at the University of Cape Town, has proposed a solution. A post-doctoral researcher in Counter Wildlife Crime for Panthera, Dr Naude and a team of researchers have proposed wildlife corridors that link reserves as a solution to enable leopards to roam and encourage gene flow. He spoke to BizNews about the study and the success of the Panthera programme to introduce artificial or faux leopard fur into Zulu and other religious customs. – Linda van Tilburg

Helping vulnerable leopards to roam and thrive through proposed ‘wildlife corridors’

As you know, leopards are slightly different to the other big cats. They don’t really conform to protected areas. They don’t listen to fences. Most leopards in Southern Africa actually occur outside of protected areas.

63% of their range falls outside of protected areas. One of the things we’ve been looking into, is what the damage of overexploitation or unsustainable exploitation of leopards is in these areas and specifically in protected areas and how we might mitigate that. One of the things we highlighted, was that overexploited leopards actually change their behaviour.

These young dispersing males no longer leave the area they stay in and when they do that, in the long-term, it ends up resulting in inbreeding. It’s not that it necessarily has a major cost immediately, but if that persists, it can be quite dire for the leopard population.

One of the things we were highlighting that’s so important for leopards, is that we can’t just have these fortress-protected areas. What we need is connectivity between them. I guess it’s a bold plan. It’s bold because land is such a contentious issue in our country and in Southern Africa.  So, yes, we’re talking about the use of corridors to enable our big cat populations to self-regulate their diversity instead of us having to intervene, because while we can do it for lions and for cheetah, unfortunately leopards don’t translocate particularly well and we have to have sound reason to do so. So that’s the idea behind this corridor plan.

Has this been done successfully overseas?

Yes, we’re looking for contemporaries, so you’re going to look for large ambush felids that are largely solitary. The kind of sister species that you would compare leopards to are tigers or jaguar. Jaguar are probably the best comparison for this and there is a very successful corridor programme in South America for jaguar throughout the Pantanal. That’s the sort of comparison that we’d like to draw. There, they’ve designated a series of protected areas or semi-protected areas through farmland that would allow jaguar to move between large protected areas and it is essentially self-regulating diversity.

So how would this work in practice? Would it be underpasses under bridges, under highways? What would wild corridors look like?

That’s the difficult part. Of course, much of rural South Africa is designated farmland, but I suppose the advantage is that it wouldn’t need to be completely hard protected areas, completely fenced-in and designated just for wildlife. What you would need, is corridors of tolerance, if you want to call it. Leopards move quite freely over fences and through farmland, the concern would be expectation in those areas. One of the biggest threats to leopards or to any big cat is the conflict with pastoralists or people or anyone who keeps domestic stock and of course, the retaliatory killing that happens as a result of that.

Source: Dr Vince Naudé

What we would need to do, is have these designated green zones that would allow, particularly leopards to move through between large protected areas. This is already being done in some ways, either through private reserves that tend to congregate around large protected areas, or, of course, we have larger transboundary reserves being established which take these things into account. They were originally designed for elephant migrations, but they will also allow for leopards to move across those landscapes.

So, you would need the farmers and the communities onboard?

That is the difficult part. We have a hunting culture. We also have a strong culture of intolerance to predators. Not surprisingly so. I think for a lot of people, the cost to livelihood is real and needs to be acknowledged. Part of what we would try and do, is to create compensatory mechanisms, social engagement mechanisms depending, of course, on how the land is being used, in order to mitigate some of those costs in those areas.

Unfortunately, cats are cats and they are going to target easier prey items like domestic stock. Part of our long-term plan is to engage with landowners to try and allow for important corridors. We don’t have large tracts of land between protected areas owned by single entities, as one would potentially in forest landscapes in South America where you only have a few stakeholders who can make huge decisions in terms of how that land is being used. And, of course there is domestic stock on that land. So, that’s a problem area, but that’s our long term plan…to strengthen our protected areas as they are, to create a bit of tolerance for predators and what they mean in a system and how valuable it is for them to be able to move between these protected areas for their long-term persistence.

Have you engaged any organisations so far, I’ve seen that the Cape Leopard Trust has been mentioned and private reserves including Sabi Sands and Phinda?

We work actively with the Cape Leopard Trust and with a lot of smaller reserves throughout South Africa, as part of our work with Panthera or through our work with the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa. We have engaged landowners around these protected reserves. It’s difficult justifying predator movement through agricultural pastoral land, which is very low on the list of priorities at the moment. But, fortunately, they don’t need much.

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We have found for the most part – particularly in the Western Cape – a knowledge of leopards, knowing that there is an organisation that is interested and supporting them, notifying them when there is a leopard in the area. All of these things go a long way towards tolerance and ultimately change the mindset around predators in agricultural land. Obviously, we’ve been a little bit more successful in low leopard density areas and higher density is more difficult and if livelihoods are at risk. For the most part, everyone’s been super supportive and got on board.

How serious is the problem that leopards face in South Africa? If you look at the numbers and how they have changed over the past decade?

That’s the golden question. It isn’t answered simply. It’s incredibly difficult to monitor what leopard numbers look like over time, particularly because they are such a cryptic species. They’re largely nocturnal, you need to be able to identify individuals. I’m sure anyone who’s been out on a game drive knows just how rare it is to find them in the landscape even when they are at higher densities.

We have an extensive camera trapping network that’s been monitoring most leopard populations or key points in South Africa’s leopard population for nearly five years now and for the most part, while it seems that there has been a substantial decline in those populations, it’s difficult to tell what the trend is.  Some populations will even out over time and others seem to be in decline. For now, we can’t say with any kind of surety just yet what the long-term pattern looks like, but we’re on the cusp of that. That’s about a year or two away in terms of having really robust data for leopard populations in South Africa.

So, you have no idea how many leopards are left in South Africa, at this stage?

At this stage, no. The baseline study that was carried out by Dr Lourens Swanepoel is probably our best guess in terms of the habitat availability for them and you’re looking at between five to six thousand individuals, but most scientists who have a look at that, will also see that the confidence interval around that estimate range between, two and a half to 12 000. (The most systematic population estimate ranges from 2,813–11,632 leopards, which equates to 1,688–6,979 mature individuals (60% mature population structure).

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It is a baseline to work from. It’s something that we can use moving forward, but it just highlights how difficult it is to get on top of these numbers. One of our concerns is that, by the time Panthera gets a proper grasp on what is happening, the declines may have been substantial.

Panthera (that you are also associated with), has been instrumental in substituting the leopard skins that is used in Zulu traditions and also for the Shembe Church.  How successful has that project been?

A major theme of my PhD research had to do with the Shembe Church, and it is part of what I do at Panthera. So, we deal a lot with the Nazareth Baptist Shembe Church in South Africa. They’re a fairly young religion, it was only formalised in the early 1900s and basically, it’s an amalgamation of Zulu cultural beliefs and practices and modern Baptist religion.

This amalgamation has resulted in the use of leopard skin capes that were traditionally a symbol of Zulu royalty now being incorporated into the church where every man is considered the king of his own household and as such, is entitled to wear leopard skin.

The followers wear these leopard skins at these amazing large gatherings, primarily in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. What we as Panthera have been doing for some time in conjunction with various collaborators, we’ve produced these faux alternatives, that are called “Amanbatha”.They are essentially a fake leopard skin cape. Since 2013, I think to date, we’ve distributed about 18 500 leopard skins to Shembe members.

We have a brilliant working collaboration with them in terms of reducing demand for real leopard skins. It’s difficult, a lot of people are hard-line about what one should and shouldn’t do, but the reality is that culture exists, and traditional use exists, and it’s no-one’s place to dictate what one can and can’t do. Rather, it’s about how we as various communities address sustainability. We have a great relationship with the Shembe Church, and we don’t pretend to challenge or undermine the cultural usage.

Leopard conservation
Source: Panthera

Instead, we try and navigate the space together, where we cultivate a sense of long-term sustainability around leopard skin use and this is where this brilliant idea, the brainchild of this is Tristan Dickerson, who works in collaboration with Panthera and Gareth Whittington-Jones. He runs the Furs for Life programme with Panthera, and they design these amazing capes.

We also have a new market specialist, Jeffrey Dunnink, who has come onto the programme, and he’s got these amazing ideas for turning it into a long-term business model and creating designer high-end leopard skin.  It’s turning into quite an exciting project.  This is really just the beginning of what I think ,would be a great example of how you we can be respectful and cognisant of the fundamental underpinnings in a culture, because Shembe religion is largely respectful of leopards and their value as a cultural symbol. There is a whole religion built around environmental sustainability and being at one with nature. So, I’m not claiming that we’ve won here. I just think that we need to acknowledge that creating real long-term change takes time and it takes engagement and an understanding on both sides.