Leopards are hunted for various reasons; communities living near their habitats kill them for their apparent threat to not only their lives but also their domesticated animals. They are also poached for their fur for commercial intent. They are also hunted down during cultural rituals - as a show of courage during coming of age rituals as well as components of witchcraft practices. Despite their vast distribution throughout the world, they are given very little attention by conservationists except for a few like Tristan Dickerson among others from Panthera.
Tristan Dickerson attending a Shembe religious ceremony in South Africa. Photo by Greg Lomas
I studied my BSc degree followed by an honors in behavioural ecology at the then University of KwaZulu Natal. Work experience during this and just after my degrees included working on research projects on elephants (where I met my wife), black rhinos and vegetation surveys. During one of these placements at Phinda Private Game Reserve, there was an opening in a leopard project for a research assistant. Predators had always been my interest and passion so this opportunity was once in a lifetime for me. My wife was studying her favourite animal at the time also at Phinda Private Reserve which was very lucky in our line of work. Whilst studying leopards I came across all the threats that were facing leopard populations and naturally wanted to do more than just research them. This drove me to look deeper into some issues which lead to me focusing on leopard conservation.
In the past, it was living and raising a family in a game reserve and working closely with wild animals. But now that I am out of the game reserve it’s knowing that what I am doing is making a difference. Lots of conservation work is rewarding as you are trying to make a difference, but it is not often that you make a quantifiable difference. I am very lucky that my work has had an impact and that the science is there to back it up.
Leopard photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din
Capturing leopards was always very exciting as they must be the most dangerous animal to capture safely. Working in big 5 game reserves always has exciting moments with all the dangerous animals as a lot of our work involved working closely with large predators and walking around in the game reserves tracking leopards.
I am biased towards Phinda Private Game Reserve as I spent 8 years living there. It is a beautiful reserve with a huge diversity in habitat, birds and animals and is filled with amazing memories for me and my family.
Big cat conservation is close to my heart and needs addressing right now. Tigers are almost gone, lions will be next and leopards being the most persecuted big cat in the world will follow shortly. We need a paradigm shift from reactive conservation (when the species is just about to be extinct such as with tigers) to proactive conservation where we can change policies and protocols now to conserve a species in the future such as the case with leopards. Rhinoceros and elephant conservation are in a crucial time where all the money invested in it is not making a difference. These species need something special to take place to save them. Hopefully, the answer doesn’t come too late.
All kinds of conservation need a multi-pronged approach. There is never a silver bullet when it comes to conservation. Each needs its own unique combination of solutions. The good news is that South Africa is a leader in conservation and most animals will end up having South Africa as a last stand area. In South Africa, all our reserves are fenced as there is no space to have open reserves anymore. This is a double-edged sword as we can protect animals within these fenced areas, but all animals outside of them are seen as fair game and eradicated. The fence allows us to identify someone who is poaching as they are trespassing and keep the animals away from threats whereas without a fence the boundaries are not defined and animals and people mix. It is this strategy that allows us to have a greater chance of protection when the crunch comes. Unfortunately, this alone will not conserve species in danger and needs other strategies to work with it.
Follow Panthera’s Furs for Life project where one can see positive conservation in action. This project has set a precedent for the world to follow where a religion in South Africa has joined hands with a conservation group to save leopards, an animal that is threatened by the same religion. This is a unique situation where the religion has seen the threat and is doing something about it. Panthera has created a fake fur that the followers of the religion are now using to reduce the impact of the skin trade on leopard populations. In this regard, Panthera is running a campaign dubbed I Fake It. You can follow it on social media using #ifakeit.
The Munyawana Leopard Project was established by Dr. Luke Hunter, Panthera’s President, to address the plight of leopards which seems to attract the least awareness.
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