Nimeona kisutu, mwenye kisutu sijamwona

Sunday, 10 June 2018


Helle checking a camera trap in Jozani Forest
The quest for the Zanzibar leopard is the running theme of the premiere of the Animal Planet infotainment series, “Extinct or Alive", which airs in the US on Sunday, 10 June. We participated in the production of this extended episode by providing background material about leopards and other wildlife on the island, as well as the island’s history and culture. Travelling to Zanzibar a week in advance of the film crew, we scouted filming locations, lined up interviews, liaised with local forestry staff, and obtained access to recent photographs of alleged leopard pugmarks and leopard kills (eviscerated goats).

Martin setting a camera trap in Jozani Forest
In addition, we deployed 10 camera traps in various locations, getting excellent video footage of some of Zanzibar’s small carnivores in the wild: the Zanzibar servaline genet (Genetta servalina archeri), the African palm civet (Nandinia binotata), and the Zanzibar bushy-tailed mongoose (Bdeogale crassicauda tenuis). To our knowledge, none of these has been filmed on Unguja island before, so this was exciting.

Other wildlife that we filmed with the camera traps included Zanzibar Sykes monkey (Cercopithicus mitis albogularis), greater galago (Otolemur garnettii garnettii), the Zanzibar subspecies of the Tanzania dwarf coast galago (Galagoides zanzibaricus zanzibaricus), red bush squirrel (Paraxerus palliatus frerei), northern giant pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus cosensi), Zanzibar four-toed sengi (Petrodromus tetradactylus zanzibaricus) and black and rufous sengi (Rhynchocyon petersi).

Towards the end of our work in Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park, we also engaged in an imaginary leopard chase of the kind that we've described in earlier publications (see the references below). As we might have expected, this came to nought, and we left with nothing to pique the interest of the producers and film crew. They did, however, use footage of an interview with us and many clips of the other animals that we had camera-trapped, including superb daytime (and therefore colour) video shots of a servaline genet. 

In the absence of verified evidence, like most authorities we now presume the Zanzibar leopard to have been extirpated, despite tantalising reports and claims to the contrary. But this shouldn't stop people from enjoying Animal Planet's expertly crafted and highly entertaining narrative.


Walsh, Martin & Helle Goldman 2017. Chasing imaginary leopards: science, witchcraft and the politics of conservation in Zanzibar. In Iain Walker (ed.) Contemporary Issues in Swahili Ethnography. Abingdon & New York: Routledge. 99-118. [originally published in 2012 in Journal of Eastern African Studies 6 (4): 727-746. DOI: 10.1080/17531055.2012.729778]

Walsh, Martin & Helle Goldman 2017. Cryptids and credulity: the Zanzibar leopard and other imaginary beings. In Samantha Hurn (ed.) Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Exploring Encounters with Mysterious Creatures. Abingdon & New York: Routledge. 54-90. DOI: 10.4324/9781315567297-11.

Friday, 8 June 2018


In October 2017 Martin was interviewed at length by Mike Huberty and Allison for the See You On The Other Side podcast. This came out on 8 November as episode 169, 'Hunting the witch's familiar: Dr Martin Walsh and the Zanzibar Leopard'. It's hard to imagine anyone listening right through, but check out the text and images on the webpage, together with the track from Mike's band, Sunspot, and a poem of Allison's inspired by our conversation. Here's one of the photos, taken by Helle when we were working together in Zanzibar in September 2017 (more about that trip in later posts).

martin walsh zanzibar leopard
Martin Walsh interviewing local wildlife expert Shabani Imani in September 2017 (he’d recently fallen out of a coconut palm!)


Our paper on 'Chasing imaginary leopards', originally published in 2012, was reprinted in 2017 in Iain Walker's edited volume on Contemporary Issues in Swahili Ethnography. Here's the title and abstract:

Chasing imaginary leopards: science, witchcraft and the politics of conservation in Zanzibar

Martin Walsh and Helle Goldman

Contemporary Issues in Swahili Ethnography (Hardback) book coverThe Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) is (was) a little-known subspecies endemic to Unguja island. Rapid population growth and the expansion of farming in the twentieth century destroyed leopard habitat and decimated their natural prey, bringing them into increasing conflict with people. Villagers explained the growing number of attacks on their children and livestock by supposing that the leopards responsible for them were owned by witches and sent by them to do harm. Following the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, localised efforts to act on this theory culminated in an island-wide leopard eradication and witchfinding campaign, supported by the government. By the 1990s state-subsidised hunting had brought the leopard to the brink of extinction, and most zoologists now presume it to be extinct. However, many islanders believe that leopard keepers are still active in rural Unguja and sightings of leopards continue to be reported. Beguiled by such narratives, visiting researchers and local conservationists have continued to pursue these elusive felids. In this paper we describe and analyse a series of unsuccessful ‘‘kept leopard chases’’, including abortive calls by government officials for the capture and display of domesticated leopards. These quixotic efforts show no signs of abating, and the underlying conflicts of knowledge and practice remain unresolved, posing a challenge to the theory and practice of conservation not only in Zanzibar but also further afield.

The original journal paper can be viewed and downloaded here:


In November 2016 our long-awaited chapter on 'Cryptids and credulity' appeared in Samantha Hurn's edited volume Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Exploring Encounters with Mysterious Creatures. As publishers often do these days, the book was forward dated to 2017, confusing us all.

Here's an extract from the introduction to our chapter:

Cryptids and credulity: the Zanzibar leopard and other imaginary beings

Martin T. Walsh and Helle V. Goldman

There is nothing intrinsically unscientific about searching for new (undescribed) and old (extinct) species, and one cryptozoologist has defined the discipline concisely as ‘a targeted-search methodology for zoological discovery’, noting that it is only one of a number of possible means to achieving this end (Arment 2004: 9). But all too often cryptozoologists’ desire to find hidden species and identify the imaginary as real leads them to downplay the negative evidence that carries more weight with conventional zoologists and ethnozoologists (Simpson 1984: 12–14; Meurger 1988: 11–24). Although there is also a strong tradition of debunking fakes and false claims within cryptozoology, it has failed to establish itself as an academic discipline (Coleman 2002: xxxiii), while the professional association founded by Heuvelmans and colleagues – the International Society of Cryptozoology – has long since been defunct and its journal (Cryptozoology) extinct (Eberhart 2002: xxvii).

Our epigraph highlights a boundary problem that cryptozoologists have also struggled with: what kinds of phenomena or imaginary being fall within their remit? The subjects of cryptozoology are generally now referred to as cryptids, on one definition ‘the alleged animals that cryptozoologists study’ (Eberhart 2002: xxiii, also xlvii). Some restrict this to non-microscopic creatures they consider most likely to be discovered to be living species; others include historical and contemporary entities that are more obviously mythical (compare Greenwell 1985; Arment 2004: 11–12, 16–18). In his encyclopaedia Eberhart takes the broader view, and lists ten categories that most of the ‘mystery animals’ in his compilation fall into:

1. Distribution anomalies ...
2. Undescribed, unusual, or outsize variations of known species ...
3. Survivals of recently extinct species ...
4. Survivals of species known only from the fossil record into modern times ...
5. Survivals of species known only from the fossil record into historical times ...
6. Animals not known from the fossil record but related to known species ...
7. Animals not known from the fossil record or bearing a clear relationship to known species ...
8. Mythical animals with a zoological basis ...
9. Seemingly paranormal or supernatural entities with some animal-like characteristics ...
10. Known hoaxes or probable misidentifications ... (2002: xxiii–xxiv)

The subject of our paper is the analysis of narratives and statements about an animal, the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi), which might be included in Eberhart’s third category, given that it has been declared by some authorities to be extinct, though many Zanzibaris remain convinced of its continued existence. The classic example of a carnivore in this category is the Thylacine or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), and in a later section we will explore some of the differences and significant parallels between the two cases. Unlike its marsupial analogue, the demise of the Zanzibar leopard has been so recent that zoologists cannot be sure that no individuals survive. In this respect its cryptozoological (and ontological) status remains uncertain.

However, as an anthropological analysis of indigenous and other narratives about the leopard shows, it can be described under more than one of Eberhart’s headings: as the undescribed (and unusual) variation of a known species, as a mythical animal with a zoological basis, and perhaps even as a supernatural entity with animal-like characteristics. Whereas popular cryptozoology typically reduces the investigation of imaginary beings to a single dimension (‘do they exist or not?’), we argue that only careful anthropological and ethnozoological research can unravel the complexity of cases like that of the Zanzibar leopard and other so-called cryptids. And, as this introduction has implied, cryptozoology itself can also be analysed anthropologically, a subject we will return to briefly in our conclusion.

A version of the chapter can be viewed online here:


We've not posted for some time, so are publishing a series of catch-up posts to get the blog going again. Here's the first, an extract from the beginning of a paper that Martin presented to the European Swahili Workshop (No. 9) in Paris, on 18-19 April 2016. The theme of the meeting was “Working on/with archives and the written word in anthropology and literary studies: Perspectives on the Swahili world”:

The man-eater of Uroa and other collective fictions in Zanzibar

Martin Walsh, University of Cambridge

In the early hours of 30th June 1948 a small boy was seized and dragged from a field hut near Uroa on the east coast of Unguja island, Zanzibar, and was never seen again. Pugmarks were found nearby, and it was presumed that he had been taken and devoured by a leopard. Over the next seven weeks three more people were killed in similar circumstances in the same general area: a young girl, a middle-aged woman, and another boy. These events generated considerable alarm not only in the local communities involved, but also among officials in the British colonial administration, who ascribed the killings to a “man-eating leopard”, imagined in the mode of other “man-eaters” of African and Indian jungle lore. In an effort to
prevent further deaths and contain the panic, the authorities went to some lengths to trap and kill the supposed man-eater, and its demise was announced in the second week of September 1948.

We know these and other details from the contemporary documents that have survived. The archival record includes official correspondence – some of which reached up to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, district and other administrative reports, newspaper articles, and the personal notebook of Zanzibar‟s Senior Commissioner at the time, R.H.W. Pakenham. But though these written archives give us some insight into the knowledge and beliefs of officialdom, including Zanzibari Arab civil servants and local administrators, the voices of the villagers who experienced these events first hand are largely absent, though there are hints that they might have had something very different to say, not least their own interpretation of events. The few paragraphs that Pakenham wrote in his notebook make this very clear, though they were not intended for public consumption and did not enter the official record at the time.

Most of the people who witnessed or were close to the events of 1948 are now dead. In November 2011, having read the archives in Zanzibar some months before, I began to seek out and interview elderly people on the east coast who could recall something of what had happened more than 63 years earlier. Their accounts were very different from those preserved in the government archives, and not just richer and thick with local colour. Rather than a single man-eater, they described the depredations of multiple “kept leopards”, sent to do the bidding of the various witches who owned and controlled them. This reflected an understanding of leopard predation that persists to this day and that Helle Goldman and I have described in some detail in earlier publications (Goldman and Walsh 1997; Walsh and Goldman 2007; 2012). This paper is my first attempt to process material relating to the 1948 case, and to explore answers to some of the questions that it raises. Who and what should we believe? Can we reconcile the conflicting interpretations of Zanzibar‟s one-time rulers and the oral performances of their former subjects, discern unequivocal truth behind the competing fictions of colonial writing and postcolonial memory? What really happened?

The full paper is online here:

Thursday, 25 February 2016


Here's the abstract of 'Continental Island Formation and the Archaeology of Defaunation on Zanzibar, Eastern Africa' by Mary E. Prendergast, Hélène Rouby, Paramita Punnwong, Robert Marchant, Alison Crowther, Nikos Kourampas, Ceri Shipton, Martin Walsh, Kurt Lambeck, and Nicole L. Boivin, 'Continental Island Formation and the Archaeology of Defaunation on Zanzibar, Eastern Africa'. It's published by PLOS ONE and can be viewed online or downloaded via the links embedded in this paragraph.

With rising sea levels at the end of the Pleistocene, land-bridge or continental islands were formed around the world. Many of these islands have been extensively studied from a biogeographical perspective, particularly in terms of impacts of island creation on terrestrial vertebrates. However, a majority of studies rely on contemporary faunal distributions rather than fossil data. Here, we present archaeological findings from the island of Zanzibar (also known as Unguja) off the eastern African coast, to provide a temporal perspective on island biogeography. The site of Kuumbi Cave, excavated by multiple teams since 2005, has revealed the longest cultural and faunal record for any eastern African island. This record extends to the Late Pleistocene, when Zanzibar was part of the mainland, and attests to the extirpation of large mainland mammals in the millennia after the island became separated. We draw on modeling and sedimentary data to examine the process by which Zanzibar was most recently separated from the mainland, providing the first systematic insights into the nature and chronology of this process. We subsequently investigate the cultural and faunal record from Kuumbi Cave, which provides at least five key temporal windows into human activities and faunal presence: two at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), one during the period of post-LGM rapid sea level rise and island formation, and two in the late Holocene (Middle Iron Age and Late Iron Age). This record demonstrates the presence of large mammals during the period of island formation, and their severe reduction or disappearance in the Kuumbi Cave sequence by the late Holocene. While various limitations, including discontinuity in the sequence, problematize attempts to clearly attribute defaunation to anthropogenic or island biogeographic processes, Kuumbi Cave offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine post-Pleistocene island formation and its long-term consequences for human and animal communities.

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Here's the abstract of our presentation to Baraza: Swahili Conference at SOAS, in the University of London on Saturday 31 October 2015:

Swahili scams: felids and fakes in Zanzibar

Martin Walsh, University of Cambridge
Helle Goldman, Norwegian Polar Institute

In addition to its usual cultural referents, the label ‘Swahili’ has become a byword for sharp practice (cf. ‘mswahili ... a crafty, tricky person’, TUKI 2001: 222). It is not unusual for economically successful groups to be stereotyped in this way, and Zanzibaris are apt to think similarly about the mainlanders of different ethnic origins who come to do business on their islands. At the same time it is not difficult to find real cases of deception that appear to confirm such stereotypes. In this presentation we will examine contemporary confidence tricks involving felids, focusing on cases that have apparently resulted in their illegal translocation from mainland Tanzania to Unguja (Zanzibar) island. These scams are made possible by and take advantage of a particular set of cultural ideas about the domestication of leopards and their use for nefarious purposes, ideas that we have already examined in detail elsewhere (e.g. Goldman and Walsh 1997; Walsh and Goldman 2012). These imagined practices are described by rural Zanzibaris as ‘Swahili’ in the traditional, cultural sense (Walsh and Goldman 2007: 1142), and we will consider the extent to which this belief in the reality of leopard-keeping is in turn founded upon and supported by intentional acts of deceit. This argument is premised on a position of scientific realism, and we will conclude by discussing its implications for relativistic approaches to understanding local knowledge and practice, as well as its application to the study of swindling and scams in the wider Swahili-speaking world and beyond.

Our presentation is online here: