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Background

Why are we doing this Research?

Leopards are one of the least studied of the large predators in Africa, despite being a key ecological and economic species in many countries. Being a large predator and at the top of the food chain, the presence of leopard in an area can be argued to be an indicator of a healthy ecosystem. Leopard are important economically for both the photographic and trophy hunting tourist industries of many African countries. Conversely depredation of livestock by leopards can have severe negative consequences for the survival of many commercial and subsistence livestock producers. The leopard has always been argued to be the most resilient of all the large predators of the African savannas, with little data to substantiate this claim. More recent work has indicated that populations of this species may in fact be at risk from a combination of habitat loss, direct and indirect persecution and over- harvesting of individuals as trophy animals.

Photograph by Andy Lowe

Zimbabwe is an important case study when it comes to understanding the resilience of the leopard in the context of its importance both as a trophy species, and a major problem animal species. Zimbabwe was one of the first countries to argue successfully for a CITES quota for leopard, to enable individual animals to be killed, and the trophies exported, the benefits of this practice offsetting the costs borne by the farmer due to livestock depredation. The leopard is now one of the most important species for the trophy hunting industry in Zimbabwe, given the fact that it occurs across a number of different land uses and ownership.

In recent years key studies in South Africa have indicated that the leopard may not be as resilient a species as previously thought, and recruitment can decrease to critical levels under combinations of offtake – legal and illegal. It is an urgent requirement of leopard management in Zimbabwe that key populations parameters are measured in areas with different types and levels of utilisation. Only once this has been done can management make decisions regarding the sustainability of the current system of consumptive utilisation. As many other African countries cite the Zimbabwean system when seeking approval for increasing levels of consumptive utilisation, understanding the Zimbabwean system will assist other range states in managing their leopard populations.

This project proposes to determine comparative population densities (Phase 1), population demographics (Phase 2) and population recruitment (Phase 3) of five leopard populations within Zimbabwe that are representative of the five main utilisation systems:

  • Non consumptive (photographic)
  • Consumptive (trophy hunting – low pressure)
  • Consumptive (trophy hunting – medium pressure)
  • Consumptive (trophy hunting – medium pressure and problem animal control)
  • Consumptive (trophy hunting – high pressure and problem animal control)

The results of this project will feed directly into national management of the leopard as the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) have commissioned the project. The project proposes to use the data and experienced gained during the study to build capacity within the ZPWMA and the country as a whole to ensure the sustainability of the leopard trophy hunting industry as this is an important economic activity for Zimbabwe.

The results of the project will also improve our knowledge of an elusive species where we still know very little about its behavioural ecology. Such data will assist the conservation of the species not just in Zimbabwe but throughout the range of the species.

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