Cats of Contrast

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 36 No. 4, April 2016

By Alexander Braczkowski

No large cat is found in more places and has a diet that includes so many different things as the leopard does. It’s hard to believe that its populations are still dotted across over about 150 degrees of latitude, and in a large proportion of Africa and Asia’s remaining jungles, forests and savannas. Think that’s unreal? Well, George Busby and his colleagues found them in Algeria’s desolated Ahaggar in 2005, Phil Henschel found a few populations still hanging on in the west African forests where lions went extinct in the 1990s and I’ve even heard of surfers returning from Java’s famous G-Land left-hander talking about seeing their tracks on the beach. If you ever visit the bustling city edge of downtown Thane, adjoining the city of Mumbai, you may even spot one there. I sure did and three times!

So what’s up with this wide distribution and why has the leopard fared better than lions or tigers? Well it has a lot to do with them being able to snack on medium-sized antelope like bushbuck, impala and chital when the going is good, but also fitting in smaller morsels of hyrax, duiker and (even) rats in between those larger binges of antelope. 

However, as Sanctuary Asia readers are well aware, their ability to live almost anywhere puts them on a direct collision course with another incredibly adaptable animal: Man. Leopards are exploited in almost as many ways as you can imagine; just try picturing 40,000 men from the Nazareth Baptist Church in South Africa stomping their feet to the rhythmic hum of 100 vuvuzelas (remember that horn the South Africans had during the 2010 world cup?), each of them clad in at least half a leopard skin. Foreign hunters can legally visit seven African countries to shoot a leopard and take it home for their office wall (just type Cecil, the lion into Google and you’ll be amazed at what you can hunt). Then you have leopards clinging on to survival in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, surrounded on all sides by high-rises and shanties. And let’s not forget the impact of unsustainable tourism in both Africa and Asia.

I’ve spent the last seven years of my life capturing, tracking and photographing these elusive cats and the opinions and policies of people in different countries on how leopards should be managed are almost as varied as the patterns of their spots. On my recent wanderings through India and Sri Lanka with Steve Winter and National Geographic magazine and television, I realised that one thing was certain, there’s a lot of potential for governments, NGOs and conservationists to get together and work on how to ensure that we keep seeing and enjoying this cat for future generations to come.

Varying approaches

Leopards are a protected species on paper in most of Africa and Asia. So what happens when a leopard gets stuck in a suburb of the South African capital of Pretoria, hastily steals a dorper sheep from a protective kraal in the Kenya’s Laikipia district or mauls a fruit picker in India’s Bageshwar hills? Well, depending on where you find yourself – management authorities might respond in a number of different ways. When it comes to so termed ‘problem’ animals and moving them away from people, India is showing the world how it should be done and the verdict is ‘handle with care (or rather don’t handle at all if you can help it)’! Dr. Vidya Athreya’s doctoral research inspired the Maharashtra government to largely abandon translocation operations after she found that translocating cats to a 30 sq. km. and 130 sq. km. patch of forest in the Junnar Forest Division increased attacks by leopards on humans by a whopping 325 per cent and on livestock, a significant 56 per cent! Furthermore Vidya’s results lent little faith to the leopards staying in the forest patches as the species is fiercely territorial. The pattern is similar in Africa, and moving leopards and dropping them off in other locations is a bad idea. Take for example four stock-raiding leopards caught in Botswana’s central Kalahari, by Maja Weilenmann and her colleagues. She found that none of their animals stayed at the site of release in a large game reserve, which was home to a population of its own leopards. 

I’ve always tried to look at the issue of translocation through a leopard’s eyes… picture one moment walking through the forest you have an intricate knowledge of (and if you’re a female it’s the one you’ve grown up in). You know the landscape, know where food and water is and most importantly where other leopards are. Suddenly you wake up, groggy, with a slight pain in your leg (from the dart that’s hit you an hour before) and you don’t recognise a thing! Next thing you run into a leopard you also don’t know, that’s probably in prime nick and isn’t too keen at sharing breakfast with you. And we wonder why they attack people, livestock and try to find their way back home… I know I would do the same!

This handsome young male confidently emerges on the rocky granite outcrops of Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park just before sunset. The Sri Lankan leopard Panthera pardus kotiya is believed to be a separate sub-species from its Indian counterpart Panthera pardus fusca. Photo Courtesy: Arran Sivarajah

In Africa, many governments are also quick to issue so called ‘damage-causing animal’ permits, upon which a leopard is pursued and destroyed. In almost all cases this is the result of stock-raiding. I couldn’t help notice that Indian culture and religion contrast strongly with this idea and is respectful of all creatures, whether they be the smallest praying mantis or largest elephant. Hunting leopards therefore comes as a last resort, and often only in retaliation when a human life is lost. I only met one ‘leopard hunter’ in the Bageshwar province who was tasked with eliminating man-eaters, and the thought of killing a leopard in retaliation for stock theft seems to be largely frowned upon. Contrastingly, hunting leopards in Africa can be pursued under a legal framework of damage-causing animals (not for profit) as well as commercially for sport in seven countries. Most of the 1,017 skins exported legally every year through the Convention in the Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) globally (five year mean 2006-2010) were shot as trophies.

But what about the important issue of tourism in different countries on safari? Immediately, questions like “who is allowed to start up tourism operations” and “who guides people on foot or in a jeep to see leopards” spring to mind. Well, in many African states, wildlife guiding is regulated by state governments (the Zambian Wildlife Authority) or by a guiding association which is closely affiliated with the tourism and local conservation authority (the Field Guide Association of South Africa). These assessment agencies set the norms and standards for what an individual seeking to guide members of the public is expected to know, and they also provide a number of theoretical and practical examinations which provide guides with qualifications ranging from a simple jeep-based guiding license to advanced ‘on foot’ licenses which allow guides close encounters with dangerous game while with guests. In other countries, this isn’t as strictly regulated, and according to Arran Sivarajah, a Sri Lankan safari guide and regular leopard spotter in Yala National Park, guiding laws are very relaxed and there is no formal assessment body which grants guiding licenses to people. “Any Sri Lankan can purchase a jeep and guide in our national parks. It’s a problem as sometimes guides speed and accidentally kill leopards and other wildlife,” Arran said. It seems things are slowly changing and a new petition in part headed by the magazine, Life Times Sri Lanka is placing pressure on the government to limit the number of vehicles entering Sri Lankan national parks and introduce better management into the safari industry.

From Skins to Protectors

If you’ve ever had the privilege of looking into the amber and black eyes of a leopardess, you can quickly understand why so many different people identify and sometimes wear their skins or are happy to have their rosettes printed on one of their skirts. They are everything we strive to be: beautiful, powerful and graceful. It’s no surprise that in South Africa, the leopard has long held a place in Zulu culture and religion. For centuries royalty wore leopard skins because they were seen as an embodiment of power. The Zulu king in Kwazulu-Natal, his Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini, and members of the royal house wear skins. It is also used more widely, and men belonging to the Nazareth Baptist Church wear leopard skins as part of their traditional regalia when they attend their spiritual gatherings near Inanda Dam each year. Similarly, in southwest Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, men and women engage in the month long Dassanech ceremony in which men adorn themselves with the pelts of leopards, servals and cheetahs. In Mumbai’s Aarey Colony and Sanjay Gandhi National Park I was humbled when I saw forest dwellers pay their respects to leopards and tigers at the small Wagh Dev temple, where they pray for protection when entering the forest.

This stunning camera-trap image shows a female leopard crouching over a waterhole in Aarey Colony that lies on the outskirts of the world’s most unique national park within city limits – the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in suburban Mumbai. Photo Courtesy: Nayan Khanolkar

The challenge of living together

One of the biggest commonalities that struck me while travelling across Africa, India and Sri Lanka is how people and leopards often seem to clash with one another. Whether it be over a sheep or an impala, and unfortunately in rare occasions over a loss of human life. The conflict in Africa for the most part is explained simply: we eat the same things! Leopards prefer to eat animals which weigh about 15-40 kg, and that’s pretty much smack bang into what they love too: angora goats, young domestic pigs, cattle calves and even expensive black-faced impalas in South Africa. 

In a world with increasingly more people and less space for us to live side by side, I ask the question how do we co-exist with this rosetted cat that on one hand we admire and cherish so much but on the other sometimes get angry with for their stock-raiding habits? Much like a stock, commodity or currency I believe that leopards can be valued in a number of different ways, and in almost all cases this value transcends the ethical, existential and cultural reasons for its continued existence: I’m talking about tangible financial returns.

Let’s start with the most elemental components of our world - water, soil and vegetation. There is now an increasingly large pile of science which tells us that the presence of a large carnivore in an ecosystem indirectly holds those three elements in a careful balance. You may remember the classic example of how Yellowstone’s wolves help keep deer numbers in check which in turn prevents overuse of natural trees and soil erosion. Well leopards aren’t that dissimilar. Justin Brashare’s and Kalan Ickes’ long term research  in Ghana and Malaysia has shown when you eliminate leopards from an ecosystem you will soon be welcoming an explosion of baboons and wild boars. Both species with the absence of top down pressures of a large carnivore expand their ranges and numbers by several hundred percent.

When I was filming leopards with Bertie Gregory in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, we saw hundreds of stray dogs on the outskirts of the park. Vidya Athreya and colleagues estimated there’s about 60 per sq. km.! Leopards could be useful helpers in limiting their numbers and this could indirectly limit the spread of canid diseases like rabies and distemper.

But what about harvesting the beauty and magnificence of a leopard? Imagine spotting it in the wild and maybe even on foot. Well, tens of thousands of tourists flock to South Africa’s Sabi-Sands every year to snap a photo of a leopard, sometimes seeing as many as four or five in a day. Kristi Maciejewski’s doctoral research showed it’s one of Africa’s most sought after animals on safari. People pay between $ 250 – 700 to see it! What’s more is that a portion of this money goes directly back into the management of the reserve! It’s a cool example of leopards paying their way. 

I saw incredible potential for a similar system to maybe work in Mumbai’s SGNP and Aarey Colony, and if local community members who live on the borders of the park can get a portion of the profits that would encourage them to be part of the solution! I continuously think back to a man called Surya who helped our film team in Mumbai. The park’s most famous leopard ‘Big Daddy’ would chase his pigs on a weekly basis, sometimes stealing a piglet. I asked myself how could Surya benefit from this incredible and fairly relaxed population of leopards – after all he has to try and make a living alongside them! 

Learning from each other

Spending four months on the Indian sub-continent taught me that you can never truly begin to understand a species until you’ve seen it in different habitats, living alongside a variety of people and being viewed in different ways. Although these contrasts appear sharp at first, I believe there are many ideas that the leopard-remaining range states can share with each other. For instance maybe South African farmers could take a leaf from the book of those farming with cattle and fruit in India - their tolerance is extraordinary, they have an incredible respect for all life and even pay their respects to leopards spiritually. At the same time maybe southern African reserve managers could help Indian and Sri Lankan reserves with vehicle communication, how to maximise leopard sightings and the ethics of approaching an animal. I will never forget the unsettling sight of three vehicles charging down a female leopard and her young four-month-old cub in the northern section of Yala National Park. Subsequent to this, two leopards were killed towards the end of 2015 
in the park.

I believe that there is incredible room for collaborations, working groups and most importantly an exchange between Indian and African environmental students at Universities. I thank the Indian and Sri Lankan governments and people for their incredible hospitality, warmth and help when travelling through their countries. I welcome you all to the savanna of my country South Africa where I hope to show you many leopards. 

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