There are many divisions between the protectors and the forces bearing down on the imperilled leopard population in SA.
For the second year in a row, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa declared a zero quota on trophy hunting of leopards. Conservation organisations hailed this as a victory, but the Professional Hunters Association of SA says with no value on its head, leopards become even less protected.
The hunters also say the
seven potential jobs created by one visiting trophy hunter are lost, as is the income from other animals they will kill and revenue from airline tickets and accommodation. The association says 7,633 foreign hunters contributed R1.65bn to the economy in 2015. With the zero quota on leopard, about 36 clients are lost annually.
Hunting outfitter Ernest Dyason, whose livelihood has been severely affected by the two-year ban, says he fears that farmers who formerly offered leopard for hunting on their properties will now turn to livestock farming, pushing leopard from their habitat and further endangering their survival.
"If I buy a leopard hunt from a game farmer, I stay in his lodge for 10 to 14 days and we also hunt a variety of other species, largely paying for the upkeep and sustainability of his game farm," he says.
Dyason says he books a lot of big-game hunting in Tanzania, and last year took about $180,000 in business there.
The association says its members agree that only male leopard older than five years may be hunted.
"SA is on the forefront of legislated hunting in a sustainable manner," says the association’s CEO Tharia Unwin. "Without these controls, the industry will be driven underground."
She says if a leopard is to be shot, it should be by a trophy hunter, who pays up to $4,500.
In January, the department said its decision to extend the zero quota for leopard hunting was based on "the review of available scientific information on the status and recovery of leopard populations in SA".
The research came from the Scientific Authority, a division of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi).
"The Scientific Authority took into account input from the scientific steering committee for leopard monitoring comprising government institutions, NGOs [nongovernmental organisations], representatives of industry and academic institutions," said the department.
"Also taken into account were the results of systematic camera trap surveys undertaken in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga as well as relevant data from the industry using Cat Spotter [a website with trailcam data collected by landowners, hunters and others]."
The South African National Biodiversity Institute admitted the science on which they based their initial advice to the minister lacked reliability, was biased and did not include citizen science or population counts in leopard habitats on private land in the bigger areas of SA
Unwin says her association engaged with the department and the institute only after the decision was announced.
"Sanbi admitted during this engagement that the science on which they based their initial advice to the minister lacked reliability, was biased and did not include citizen science or population counts in leopard habitats on private land in the bigger areas of SA.
"The department then agreed to use Cat Spotter data, as well as other science-based studies, not only their own research programmes," she says.
Dyason believes there are more than 4,500 leopards in SA. But the secretive and nocturnal cats are difficult to track as densities vary and they range over large areas.
Prof John Donaldson of the Scientific Authority says leopard populations declined from 2013-2015, with some recovery in 2016. "As a result, it was recommended that hunting quotas get deferred for an additional year to allow further recovery."
SA never uses its full annual Cites quota of 150, historically issuing a quota of 75. In 2015, only 36 leopards were hunted.
Unwin believes the zero quota discriminates against the formal hunting industry, while the government does not tackle the serious problem of illegal hunting with dogs, and leopard skins in traditional use.
Some of the skins sold will have come from leopards killed by farmers as damage-causing animals. A permit to trap, poison or shoot such an animal can be obtained and there is convincing evidence they are abused.
"If a damage-causing animal involves a species that is listed as threatened or protected [such as an elephant, leopard, lion, cheetah or hyena] in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, a civilian would need to apply to the provincial issuing authority for a permit to authorise the killing," says department spokesman Albi Modise.
But farmers apply for one permit and kill many more animals, which are not monitored.
"Each animal is supposed to be tagged and the disposal of the carcass monitored, but this is not being done," says Fred Berrangé, who founded the Leopard Conservation Project. He tracks leopards with GSM collars and then educates farmers on how to protect their livestock from predation.
Landmark Foundation director Dr Bool Smuts disagrees with the professional hunters.
"The zero quota was a good and correct decision. The leopard is imperilled and we cannot contemplate an unbanning [of trophy hunting]. The trade in them should be stopped immediately."
The department published norms and standards on leopard hunting last month. Smuts believes it is a cynical attempt to forge a mechanism to gain access to a species categorised as threatened and create a domestic trade in the trophies.
The norms and standards say mature males should be hunted, but Smuts says it is not possible to assess the age or sex of a leopard during a hunt. "This is nothing but an asset strip. We are fighting over the last 5,000 leopards left in SA."
Smuts doubts much of the revenue from trophy hunting is ploughed back into conservation – "the wealthy pay huge fees to hunt a leopard and these go into a few people’s pockets".
He says "anecdotes from hunters" are not reliable scientific data based on verifiable facts. "Some areas have well-established population estimates, while others don’t.
"Now, with the damage-causing animal permits, more leopards will be shot. More control is needed; the government is not addressing the problems of legal or illegal hunting."
The Endangered Wildlife Trust has recommended to
Sanbi that there be improved monitoring of trophy hunting, methods of ensuring that
hunts are not geographically clustered, control of damage-causing animal and skin hunts, improved and standardised data capture and reporting, monitoring of populations and a national management plan for leopards to guide their utilisation, trade and conservation.
The trusts’s senior trade officer, Dr Kelly Marnewick, says the identity and severity of the major threats to leopards are uncertain due to a lack of reliable data. "There are almost no reliable estimates for illegal off-take of leopards, but data from a few intensive studies in SA suggest it greatly outnumbers levels of legal off-take. However, even legal off-takes are poorly documented in many provinces.
"The harvesting of leopards is not managed consistently throughout the country, with some provinces implementing management plans and effective controls over harvest whereas other provinces do so to a lesser extent," says Marnewick.
"There is a need for a national management plan which provides standardised guidelines for the management of the species," she says.