Despite ample evidence showing that legal, regulated hunting is an important economic and management component of wildlife conservation in Africa, we have recently seen increased pressure from North America and Europe to limit importation of hunting trophies. These arguments are typically based primarily on emotion and false narratives about wildlife and its conservation. Uncertainty about the ability to import species such as lions and elephants has already put financial pressure on sustainable use in many African countries such that former concessions and game reserves have been abandoned or have reverted back to government control. These areas eventually will revert to less wildlife-friendly uses such as intensive livestock grazing and agriculture. Recent events in the popular media and in international regulatory bodies suggest that the African leopard may be the next target of those seeking to eliminate sustainable use and further curtail the ability of African nations to manage their wildlife resources to benefit both conservation and rural livelihoods. In response to this need, the Safari Club International Foundation Department of Science-based Conservation is developing a comprehensive strategy to address gaps in our knowledge about leopard populations and the impact of regulated hunting on leopards.
Although leopard populations in southern and eastern Africa are the most stable and healthy in the world, reliable estimates of leopard numbers at national or even regional scales are generally not available due to their secretive nature and adaptability to a wide variety of habitats. At recent meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), this uncertainty was used to challenge existing quotas for leopard trophy exports from the various African range states. Although quotas have generally been maintained in the short-term for the nations that export the majority of leopard trophies (Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), it is certain that they will come under increased scrutiny as anti-use groups at CITES attempt to eliminate leopard hunting. The best way to meet these challenges, and to promote sustainable use as a critical component of conservation in Africa, is to provide scientific data about leopard abundance and the impacts of regulated hunting.
In response to this need, the SCIF Conservation Committee and the Department of Science-based Conservation conducted a review of the available literature about leopard conservation and management in the region, with the overall goals of identifying the important factors affecting leopard populations, determining sustainable offtake numbers for leopards, and ultimately preventing the loss of regulated hunting as a component of leopard management. The conservation strategy identifies four important data needs for leopards: establishing methods to estimate leopard abundance at regional and national scales, quantifying population parameters such as mortality and recruitment for leopards in a variety of habitats and management situations, determining how well-regulated trophy hunting affects leopard populations, and developing strategies to address human-leopard conflict as the most important threat to leopard populations in most areas.
The leopard strategy is the first of several conservation strategies that Conservation will be developing as part of a new focused model for our efforts within SCI Foundation. By focusing our efforts and resources on a small number of focal areas, we feel that we can increase our impact on conservation issues and align more closely with stakeholders, including SCI. We appreciate the support of SCI members both in terms of their financial contributions as hunter-conservationists and for their assistance in identifying conservation issues that are critical to maintaining and showcasing the importance of sustainable use in wildlife conservation.