The Munyawana Leopard Project is a shining example of how good science can impact policies for the benefit of a species. Using scientific data collected over the years, Panthera has helped rewrite public policy regulating leopard trophy hunting and the management of “problem” animals in the region. We are also working with local communities to improve their livestock husbandry techniques and reduce leopard-human conflicts.

Due to their wide distribution, leopards are one of the most extensively persecuted wild cats in the world. Within some South African communities, leopards are hunted for their beautiful skins, which are often used for traditional ceremonial purposes. Pastoralists also frequently hunt leopards in retribution for livestock loss.

Panthera’s Munyawana field scientists work intensively to monitor leopards using camera trap surveys and radio collars. These data inform our staff on basic leopard ecology, use of their range, and interactions with local communities and livestock, all of which helps shape our regional conservation initiatives.

Informing Policy and Effecting Change

Leopards are one of the most wide-ranging carnivore species on the planet, with a distribution that spans much of Africa and Asia as well as parts of the Middle East and south-eastern Europe. The vast majority of leopards are found outside of protected areas and, consequently, they are the most persecuted large felid in the world. They are hunted by farmers and pastoralists because of the real and perceived threat they pose to livestock; they are legally targeted by commercial trophy hunters, and they are killed by poachers for traditional uses that range from ceremonial dress to folk medicine.

Despite such widespread persecution, leopards are often assumed to warrant low conservation priority. Although there have been numerous studies on the ecology and behaviour of leopards, the conservation concerns of the species have rarely been addressed. Accordingly, Dr. Luke Hunter, Panthera’s Vice President, established the Munyawana Leopard Project in Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Leopards are protected inside Phinda and other reserves in the province, but are widely persecuted when they range beyond park boundaries. Intensive monitoring by Panthera field biologists using radio-telemetry and camera trap surveys revealed that mortality rates of leopards in Phinda were more than double than previously recorded for the species.

There was also little evidence of successful reproduction in the population. Hunting levels outside the reserve were high enough to ensure the protected population was declining. In response, Panthera and the local wildlife authority, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, worked to rewrite legislation regulating the trophy hunting and control of “problem” leopards. Our field staff also worked with neighboring farmers and communities to promote the use of alternative husbandry techniques that reduce the risk of livestock depredation and improve tolerance towards leopards.

As a result of these conservation interventions, the Munyawana Leopard Project doubled the number of leopards living in Phinda Private Game Reserve.

Today, the Munyawana Leopard Project continues to ensure that the new regulations are sustainable in the long term; this is a shinning example of how sound science can impact conservation policies that benefit wildlife. We are also working to reduce human-leopard conflict more widely in KwaZulu-Natal, and to address a growing threat in the illegal trade of leopard skins. Panthera is also extending our conservation model to other regions in Africa by forging partnerships with governments, hunting operators, communities, private landowners, game farm associations and wildlife managers.

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"I wish you every success in your campaign to save the leopard from extinction and admire the way you are going about it. With the right approach that you are showing, success for both the leopard and the Shembe people/church will come." - Carmen Calleja
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