Why are leopards endangered?

There are six species of leopard and in this article I am referring to the common leopard.  This is because when people talk about the leopard, they really mean the common leopard.

Leopard forced to live amongst humans.
Leopard forced to live amongst humans.
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The word “endangered” means different things to different people. Technically the common leopard, scientific name Pantera pardus, is classified as being “Near Threatened“.  This classification does not actually fall within the range of classifications which are described as “threatened” and is one below the classification of “Least Concern”.  Therefore the common leopard is not that endangered according to the experts but are the experts correct?  We can’t assume that they are always correct because it is very difficult to count population numbers in relation to the wild cat species particularly the leopard which has a massive distribution encompassing many countries from the east coast of Africa to the far east of Russia. The classification stated is dated 2008. I doubt whether it is correct. My guess is that the leopard is genuinely endangered. No doubt the IUCN Rd List classification will change in due course as the population size of leopards gradually diminishes as it must.

However, the leopard is critically endangered in some parts of its extensive range and regarded as a pest in other areas. Between 1974 and 1982 leopards were listed as “Vulnerable” which is one level up from Near Threatened.  At that time all international commerce was banned.

The major threat to the leopard throughout Africa is the conversion of its habitat to farmland together with heavy persecution by farmers.  The persecution is retribution for the loss of livestock and for the fear of the loss of livestock.

In African rainforest which remains intact, the major threat is that both the human and the leopard prey on forest dwelling species and the human is probably more efficient at it than the leopard therefore the leopard has less prey items to hunt.  There is a very high volume of wild meat harvesting by people in forests in Africa.  However, leopards are adaptable.  They will tolerate some habitat conversion and remain close to human settlements so long as they have cover and prey.

Throughout their entire range the leopard is in conflict with people.  You will see many stories on the online Indian newspapers reflecting this situation. Leopards end up in urbanised areas where they are forced to defend themselves from attacks by people walking along pavements.  The leopard invariably loses at the end of the day.  In India, leopards are feared because of attacks on people. These are instances where the leopard is forced into contact with people because of an ever expanding human population and urbanisation.

Another reason why the leopard is in danger is that there is an increased threat to them through the poisoning of carcasses which are placed to target carnivores to control predators.

Then there is trophy hunting.  The impact this has on the leopard population is unclear.  In Tanzania only male leopards can be hunted.  When females are hunted it may have a greater impact on the population level.  Despite that, in Tanzania of the 77 trophies shot between 1995 and 1998, 28.6% were female leopards.

In some central and west African countries the Leopard pelt and its canine teeth are still traded for use in traditional rituals.  Apparently you will see them openly for sale in villages and in cities.  An important conduit for Leopard skins is Djibouti in East Africa. They are transported to Europe illegally having been bought predominantly by French military personnel.

In West Asia, habitat fragmentation is a major threat to the small leopard populations there.  In addition, farmers kill leopards in defence of their livestock and further there is a trade in poached leopards.

In Indo-Malaya, this wild cat species is mainly threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation for the timber industry.  In addition there is poaching which supplies an illegal trade in skins and other body parts, I suspect.

Conflict with humans

There are many ways the leopard can come into conflict with people.  The most common is when they kill domestic stock as mentioned.  They not infrequently live close to people and in these instances they attack dogs, cats, goats, sheep and livestock.  Sometimes, but rarely, they kill people.  In April 1989, a newspaper report stated:

“local people had stoned to death a leopard which had killed a man collecting wood in the forest in western Nepal.”

Leopards that regularly kill humans are very rare.  There are more reports of man-eating tigers than man-eating leopards.

The leopard is stealthy and bold and once it begins to prey on people it becomes a real danger.  Man-eating leopards are feared more than man-eating tigers because they enter the homes of people.  One such leopard had killed 125 people until it was shot by Jim Corbett the well-known hunter and naturalist after whom a very well known tiger reserve is named in India.

In 1910 Jim Corbett shot a famous leopard called the “Panar leopard”.  This leopard had been credited with killing 400 people.  Man-eating leopards are extremely hard to kill because of their caution, stealth, their rejection of poison baits and their intelligence not to return to kills. There is a page on PoC about man-eaters.

Estimating population size

Unless experts are able to estimate population size reasonably accurately classifying the status of wild cat species in respect of their endangerment is going to be guesswork which is a point I have frequently made.

It is quite clear that there is no reliable continent-wide estimate of leopard population size in Africa. One time there was an estimate of 700,000 on that continent.  This estimate was very controversial and leopard specialists rejected the estimate as excessive, predicting that the number should be half that and the date of this was 1988. Numbers have declined substantially since then. We don’t have any estimates for other areas to the best of my knowledge.

There is meagre evidence upon which a computer model can be run to estimate leopard population size. However, there is evidence that populations have declined severely.  By 1965 all leopards had been extirpated in Israel.

Sources: Wild Cats of the World (2002) and IUCN Red List (this should be continually updated but as can seen the last flawed assessment of population size is dated 2008, seven years ago).

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