Nimeona kisutu, mwenye kisutu sijamwona

Sunday, 22 November 2009


Tourist guides and internet sites frequently describe the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) as "elusive". Much the same can be said of specimens of this rare and possibly extinct island endemic. When we starting working together in 1996 we knew of the existence of four museum specimens. In the course of investigating these we discovered another two, bringing the total to six. There are three specimens, including the type, in the Natural History Museum in London, two in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a single mounted skin in the Zanzibar Museum. In Autumn 2008 we published an article in the Newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group outlining what we know about each of the museum specimens and their provenance (Martin Walsh and Helle Goldman, 'Updating the Inventory of Zanzibar Leopard Specimens', CAT News, 49: 4-6). We also included a section on material to be found (and lost!) outside of museums, and this is reproduced below:

"All of the museum specimens that we have identified were collected in the first half of the 20th century, during the British colonial period. We know that significant numbers of leopards were killed in the second half of the century, many of them in a government-sanctioned campaign of leopard extermination that began after the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 (Walsh & Goldman 2007). What happened to all of the skins? In the 1970s at least some of them were delivered to the state shoe factory, which processed hides and skins (Halsted 1979), but their ultimate destination is obscure. Some pieces of skin and other leopard body parts believed to have magico-medicinal properties must have remained in Zanzibar (see below). Local leopard skins that found their way onto the international market were presumably mixed up with others from East Africa and the Horn. It is possible that complete skins found their way into private collections, but we have no evidence for this at present.

When we began our research on the Zanzibar leopard in the mid-1990s we occasionally heard of skins being offered for sale by local hunters, and of some being taken to the African mainland or the Persian Gulf (Marshall 1994, Selkow 1995, Goldman & Walsh 1997, Palmer 2005). In his dissertation for the College of African Wildlife Management at Mweka, Khamis A. Khamis (1995) claimed that he had photographed the skin and claws of a Zanzibar leopard killed (at an unspecified location) in September 1993, having paid for permission to do so. At least eleven leopards are reported to have been killed in Zanzibar in 1993 (Goldman & Walsh 2002), and it not possible using available records to determine which if any of these Khamis was referring to. We also do not know the current whereabouts of his photograph.

The only leopard skin that we have seen ourselves outside of a museum are two rectangular pieces in the possession of the former Secretary of the Zanzibar National Hunters (Wasasi wa Kitaifa), who assisted us in our research in July 1996. These two fragments were said to have been taken from a leopard that was killed by hunters at Muyuni, on the south-west coast of Unguja, in 1986. Photographs of the two pieces that appeared in our original report (Goldman & Walsh 1997) were later lost in the offices of the Jozani-Chwaka Bay Conservation Project (JCBCP), but pictures of one of the pieces [see photo] survive and have been used in subsequent publications (the pdf version of the report and Walsh & Goldman 2007).

A number of Zanzibari hunters claim to be able to identify leopard faeces, but efforts to collect and preserve specimens for later analysis have so far proved unsuccessful. On 12 March 1997 HVG collected dessicated scat, said to be leopard, in the vicinity of Hazungukwa cave in Kitogani, south-east of Jozani Forest. However, this specimen was also lost in JCBCP offices before it could be properly analyzed. A similar fate befell a relatively fresh specimen that was collected by forestry staff on 19 August 2001 at the site of a reputed leopard kill (or kills) at Wangwani within the boundaries of what is now Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park. A search for this specimen at Forestry headquarters in Zanzibar town, undertaken for MTW on 5 April 2002, proved fruitless, and it was presumed that a cleaner or other staff member had thrown it away.

It was suggested that these losses might not have been accidental, but a consequence of the fear that many Zanzibaris have for the leopard and anything associated with it. The Zanzibar leopard is widely believed to be used for nefarious purposes by witches, and unprotected contact with leopards and leopard parts is thought to cause serious illness, one of the symptoms of which is the vomiting or excretion of fur (Goldman & Walsh 1997). But hunters and others who have taken out magical insurance against this kind of harm are more relaxed about handling leopard products, which have their own magical and medicinal uses. An American student, Scott Marshall (1994), was shown the claws of a leopard said to have been killed three years earlier; and in September 1994 the adventurer Lajos Jozsa (a.k.a. Louis Palmer) photographed leopard claws in the possession of a man in a village near Jozani (pers. comm. 2005, Palmer 2005).

It may still be possible to obtain fragments of leopard skin and other material of local provenance in Zanzibar, if not complete specimens. Leopard products are no longer sold openly in the traditional herbalists’ shops in Zanzibar town, though they are alleged to be available in some of them ‘under the counter’. Our own experience suggests that Zanzibar leopard parts might be more readily obtained from hunters and herbalists in rural Unguja, though the possibility of securing fresh or near-contemporary material is surely diminishing, if it has not disappeared altogether."


Goldman, H. V. and Walsh M. T. 1997. A Leopard in Jeopardy: An Anthropological Survey of Practices and Beliefs which Threaten the Survival of the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi). Zanzibar Forestry Technical Paper 63, Jozani Chwaka Bay Conservation Project, Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar. 59 pp.

Goldman, H. V. and Walsh M. T. 2002. Is the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) extinct? Journal of East African Natural History 91 (1/2), 15-25.

Halsted, D. C. 1979. Birds and larger mammals of Zanzibar. EANHS [East Africa Natural History Society] Bulletin (March-April), 41-45.

Khamis, K. A. 1995. Report on the Status of Zanzibar Leopards from 15th Dec. 1994 to June 1995 in Different Times at Zanzibar. Unpublished certificate student’s dissertation, College of African Wildlife Management, Mweka, Tanzania. 9 pp.

Marshall, S. 1994. The Status of the Zanzibar Leopard. Unpublished paper, School for International Training, Tanzania, and Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar. 17 pp.

Palmer, L. 2005. Verrückt nach dieser Welt: Abenteur zwischen Himmel und Erde. Delius Klasing Verlag, Bielefeld.

Selkow, B. 1995. A Survey of Villager Perceptions of the Zanzibar Leopard. Unpublished paper, School for International Training, Tanzania, and Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar. 28 pp.

Walsh, M. T. and Goldman, H. V. 2007. Killing the king: the demonization and extermination of the Zanzibar leopard / Tuer le roi: la diabolisation et l’extermination du leopard de Zanzibar. In Le symbolisme des animaux: L'animal, clef de voûte de la relation entre l'homme et la nature? / Animal symbolism: Animals, keystone in the relationship between man and nature? Dounias, E., Motte-Florac, É. and Dunham, M. (Eds.). Éditions de l’IRD, Paris. pp. 1133-1182.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


Following Martin Walsh's participation in The Nightmare (Paradocs Productions, 2008), a documentary about sleep paralysis and its cultural manifestations, Canadian directors Adam and Andrew Gray are pitching a film about The Ghost Leopard of Zanzibar, aka the Zanzibar leopard. Here's the text of their proposed treatment:

(60 min HD)


The Ghost Leopard of Zanzibar is a cryptozoological adventure story about one man’s search and attempt to save a species whose fascinating mythology and long association with witchcraft has led to its almost complete eradication.


A documentary crew follow an anthropologist and his team on the expedition of a life time - to search for the allegedly extinct and never-before photographed Zanzibar Leopard. In the 20th century this elusive predator was the victim of a sustained campaign of extermination by islanders who feared its reputation for man-eating and association with witchcraft and sorcery. If the team can obtain photographic proof that the Zanzibar Leopard still lives they may be able to help save it from extinction.

The story of the Zanzibar Leopard is a microcosm for the tragedy of the imminent extinction of big cats around the world. It is a story of shrinking habitats and the clash between man and beast. It is the story of a species that has been demonized and all but doomed to become a legend.

The Zanzibar Leopard evolved on this Indian Ocean island in isolation from the rest of Africa, making it an entirely unique sub-species. The islanders believe that the leopards are secretly kept as pets by local sorcerers and used by them to harass their neighbours. Suspected leopard-keepers are both greatly feared and respected on the island. Village children and livestock have been dragged off and mauled in broad daylight by these otherwise nocturnal felids. Though there have been recent sightings and reports of attacks on livestock and other wildlife, no convincing physical proof of a leopard has been found on the island in more than a decade.

After the bloody Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, a horrific island-wide leopard eradication and witch-finding campaign took place from which the species has never recovered. Though there are no official reports of leopards being killed since 1995, it is widely believed that there are still leopard-keepers working in remote areas of the island.

Martin Walsh is an anthropologist from Cambridge University who has lived and worked in Zanzibar for many years, is a fluent speaker of Swahili and expert in local ethnozoology. He believes that conservationists have been too quick to declare the extinction of the Zanzibar Leopard and is determined to prove that it still exists. Film-makers Adam and Andrew Gray follow Dr. Walsh’s journey from Cambridge into the forests and thickets of Zanzibar - the hunting ground of the leopard and one the world’s most notorious hot-beds of sorcery and witchcraft. To help in this search Walsh enlists the skills of fellow researcher and camera-trap expert Helle Goldman and a team of traditional Zanzibari hunters.

This uniquely equipped team follows a trail of clues through the most remote corners of Zanzibar in an attempt to find and photograph the mysterious and deadly big cat. The Ghost Leopard of Zanzibar is an epic journey into a world of superstition and fear, in search of a creature that is as much supernatural legend as it is real.

© copyright Para Docs Productions Inc. 2009

Friday, 3 July 2009


This poster was shown in April 2008 at the Thirteenth Annual Symposium of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (Sustaining Cultural and Biological Diversity in a Rapidly Changing World: Lessons for Global Policy) in the American Museum of Natural History, New York:

A pdf of the poster can be downloaded here:


Here's the poster that we displayed at the Felid Biology and Conservation Conference in the University of Oxford Museum of Natural History in September 2007:

A pdf of the poster can be downloaded here:


We've now posted some of our papers about the Zanzibar leopard, Zanzibar servaline genet and other small carnivores to the document-sharing website Scribd. They can all be viewed in and downloaded from the "Conservation" folder in Martin Walsh's collection of papers on the site.

Here are links to individual papers and posters:

Goldman, H. V. and Walsh, M. T. 2008. When Culture Threatens the Conservation of Biological Diversity: The Tragic Case of the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi). Poster presented to Sustaining Cultural and Biological Diversity in a Rapidly Changing World: Lessons for Global Policy, Thirteenth Annual Symposium of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, 2-5 April 2008.

Goldman, H. V. and Walsh, M. T. 2007. Human-Wildlife Conflict, Unequal Knowledge and the Failure to Conserve the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi). Poster presented to the Felid Biology and Conservation Conference, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), University of Oxford, 17-21 September 2007.

Walsh, M. T. & Goldman, H. V. 2007. Killing the King: The Demonization and Extermination of the Zanzibar Leopard / Tuer le roi: la diabolisation et l’extermination du leopard de Zanzibar. In Edmond Dounias, Elisabeth Motte-Florac and Margaret Dunham (eds.) Le symbolisme des animaux: L'animal, clef de voûte de la relation entre l'homme et la nature? / Animal symbolism: Animals, keystone of the relationship between man and nature? (collection ‘colloques et séminaires’). Paris: Éditions de l’IRD (Institut de recherché pour le développement). 1133-1182.

Goldman, H. V., Winther-Hansen, J. & Walsh, M. T. 2004. Zanzibar’s Recently Discovered Servaline Genet. Nature East Africa, 34 (2): 5-7.

Walsh, M. T. & Goldman, H. V. 2004. The Zanzibar Leopard – Dead or Alive? Tanzanian Affairs, 77: 20-23.

Walsh, M. T. & Goldman, H. V. 2003. The Zanzibar Leopard between Science and Cryptozoology. Nature East Africa, 33 (1/2): 14-16.

Goldman, H. V. & Winther-Hansen, J. 2003. The Small Carnivores of Unguja: Results of a Photo-trapping Survey in Jozani Forest Reserve, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Tromso, Norway.

Goldman, H. V. & Walsh, M. T. 2002. Is the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) Extinct? Journal of East African Natural History, 91 (1/2): 15-25 (plus the map that was published as an erratum in the 2003 issue: Journal of East African Natural History, 92 (1/2): 4).

Our original report on the Zanzibar leopard is still online on the website of the Zanzibar Department of Commercial Crops, Fruits and Forestry (DCCFF):

Goldman, H. V. & Walsh, M. T. 1997. A Leopard in Jeopardy: An Anthropological Survey of Practices and Beliefs which Threaten the Survival of the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi). Zanzibar Forestry Technical Paper No.63 / report to Jozani Chwaka Bay Conservation Project, Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar.

The following unpublished study also includes a section on the Zanzibar leopard:

Walsh, M. T. & Harvey, S. P. 1997. Understanding and Engaging Local Knowledge and Practice: Practical Approaches to Natural Resources Research and Development. Unpublished monograph prepared for the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, Chatham.

Further reference to the leopard and other carnivores on Unguja can be found in the following paper:

Walsh, M. T. 2007. Island Subsistence: Hunting, Trapping and the Translocation of Wildlife in the Western Indian Ocean. Azania, 42 (Special issue: Stephanie Wynne-Jones (ed.) The Indian Ocean as a Cultural Community): 83-113. (With an online appendix: ‘Island Mammal Lists and Local Names’).

R. H. W. Pakenham's unpublished monograph on the mammals of Zanzibar is also available on Scribd:

Pakenham, R. H. W. 1984. The Mammals of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands. Harpenden: privately printed.

Friday, 3 April 2009


by Helle Goldman, Jon Winther-Hansen and Martin Walsh

[This is the text of an article published in 2004 in Nature East Africa, 34 (2): 5-7.]

Servaline Genets Genetta servalina have long been known from Central Africa and isolated patches in East Africa, but it was not until the 1990s that they were documented on Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago. In 1995 Tony Archer acquired a dried, somewhat damaged skin and skull in the village of Kitogani, in the south–central part of Unguja. This specimen was subsequently described as belonging to a new subspecies of Servaline Genet, G. s. archeri (Van Rompaey and Colyn, 1998).

In January 2003 live Zanzibar Servaline Genets were photographed for the first time. Camera traps set up in Jozani–Chwaka Bay National Park yielded pictures of these endemic genets at four locations: two in the lush groundwater forest that comprises the heart of the park: two in the dry scrub to the north-east. As well as providing information about the genet’s occurrence and distribution, these pictures have also added to our knowledge of its physical characteristics, including the colour of its pelt (Goldman and Winther-Hansen, 2003a; 2003b).

Like other members of the viverrid family which are adapted to forest life, Servaline Genets are boldly marked. Their bodies have black spots against a tan to ochre background and their long tails are ringed in black and light-coloured bands. The combined length of the head and body is about 41–50 cm, the tail is 35–44 cm long and they weigh in the range of 1 to 2 kg (Kingdon, 1997). That an animal of the Servaline Genet’s dimensions and striking appearance can have eluded scientific discovery until just a few years ago on the flat, relatively small and very densely inhabited island of Unguja is challenging to explain, even if they are shy, solitary and nocturnal.

Rural Zanzibaris have of course known about the Servaline Genet all along and have described it in their own terms to curious naturalists. Unfortunately few researchers have systematically recorded the local Swahili dialect names for small carnivores or attempted to identify them in the field (the principal exception being Pakenham, 1959).

In the case of the Servaline Genet this problem is made more acute by the fact that it seems to be given different local names – and while some informants recognize these as the names of a single animal, others believe that they refer to different species.

In the course of our own field research on Unguja, over the past decade, we have elicited a number of different local names that individual informants give to the Servaline Genet – or at least to a small carnivore that partly matches its description – though there is by no means unanimous agreement on this score. The most widespread name is ushundwi (variant ushundi) and there seems to be little doubt that this is indeed a name for the Servaline Genet. A similar degree of confidence applies to another name, uchui, though this is much less widely known. This second name (and its variant uchui umwangu) refers to the leopard-like characteristics of the genet, chui being the common Swahili name for leopards.

Informants are rather less certain about a third name, uhange, sometimes identified with ushundwi and uchui, but often described as a different animal, which is reddish in colour (though not to be confused with the rufous Zanzibar Slender Mongoose, Herpestes sanguineus rufescens).

Similar doubt exists over the proper application of another, less common, term, ukwiri.

Van Rompaey & Colyn (1998) suggest that both of these names – which were first recorded by Pakenham (1959) – might refer to the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, but this remains to be proven.

Further research is needed to sort out these ethnotaxonomic uncertainties, linking local names and descriptions to actual specimens and observations in the field. It may also be that the current inventory of Unguja’s small carnivores is incomplete. The recent scientific discovery and photo-trapping of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet suggest that perhaps this small Indian Ocean island has yet to give up all of its zoological secrets. It is quite possible that Unguja is home to other undescribed endemic small carnivores, unknown to science, but known to rural Zanzibaris by one or more of the names discussed above.


Goldman, H. V. and Winther-Hansen, J. 2003a. The Small Carnivores of Unguja: Results of a Photo-trapping Survey in Jozani Forest Reserve, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Tromsø: privately printed.

Goldman, H. V. and Winther-Hansen, J. 2003b. ‘First Photographs of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, Genetta servalina archeri, and Other Endemic Subspecies on the Island of Unguja, Tanzania’, Small Carnivore Conservation 29: 1-4.

Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Pakenham, R. H. W. 1959. ‘Kiswahili Names of Birds and Beasts in the Zanzibar Protectorate’, Swahili: The Journal of the East African Swahili Committee 29 (1): 34-54.

Van Rompaey, H. and Colyn, M. 1998. ‘A New Servaline Genet (Carnivora, Viverridae) from Zanzibar Island’, South African Journal of Zoology 33: 42–46.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

THE ZANZIBAR LEOPARD: An Anthropological Survey (End of Fieldwork Summary)

by Martin Walsh
Zanzibar, 21 July 1996

[As its opening sentence explains, this is the written version of a briefing given to colleagues at Maruhubi following completion of our fieldwork in July 1996. The actual briefing session proved quite challenging because we didn't want to directly criticise the many members of our audience for whom witchcraft and leopard-keeping were well-established facts. Indeed debate following our presentation focused on leopard-keeping, and included discussion of a suggestion that leopard keepers might be persuaded to display their leopards in a zoo and take part in a monitored captive breeding programme. A radio reporter was present at the meeting but we weren't aware of any subsequent broadcasts that mentioned it. The written briefing and its provisional conclusions were superseded by our final report, A Leopard in Jeopardy, which eventually appeared in 1997.]


The following brief report presents the provisional findings of a consultancy on the Zanzibar Leopard undertaken in the first three weeks of July 1996. It is a worked up version of a verbal presentation given in the Sub Commission for Forestry on Friday 19 July, and is based upon a preliminary assessment of fieldwork results and discussions within the Jozani Chwaka Bay Conservation Project (JCBCP) and the Wildlife subunit in the Conservation Section of the Sub commission for Forestry (SCF). The final report of the consultancy is due to be submitted by the end of August 1996, and will expand at length upon the points raised (and some not raised) in this summary.

Research Methods

The research team comprised four persons: Dr Martin T. Walsh (consultant anthropologist and team leader), Dr Helle V. Goldman (anthropologist, JCBCP), Ali Ali Mwinyi (Wildlife Officer, JCBCP/SCF), and Suleiman Iddi Hamadi (former Secretary and now Assistant Secretary of the Wasasi wa Kitaifa (WwK), National Hunters). The research undertaken by the team included the following principal components: (a) review of relevant literature and documentation, including official files, both current and in the Zanzibar National Archives; (b) formal and informal meetings with resource persons in Zanzibar town, including representatives of relevant government institutions; (c) interviews and discussions with individual Zanzibaris, including past and present hunters, and a cross section of villagers and townspeople (both men and women). A large part of the consultancy was devoted to the semi structured interviews with hunters in villages throughout Zanzibar. Fieldwork during the second week was facilitated by the division of the team into two pairs who worked independently in different locations (MTW / SIH and HVG / AAM).

The Zanzibar Leopard: Significance and Status

The conservation of the Zanzibar Leopard is important for three interconnected reasons:

Potential National Significance

The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is Unguja’s (and Zanzibar’s) only wild felid and its largest carnivore. As many interviewees on the island emphasised, ‘chui ni mfalme’, ‘the leopard is the king’. Like many small islands Unguja has a much reduced mammalian fauna (including a total of 29 known terrestrial species, some of them introduced), and the presence of the leopard is therefore all the more noteworthy. Indeed, Unguja is the only offshore island in the western Indian Ocean possessing a population of leopards. From this perspective the existence of the Zanzibar Leopard could and should be a source of national pride, an additional point of attraction for ecologically minded tourists, and a focus for attracting extra funds for conservation of the island’s biodiversity.

Global Scientific Significance

The Zanzibar Leopard is unique. It has been physically separated from its mainland cousins for at least 10,000 years and has possibly existed as an isolated breeding population for much longer. Apparent morphological differences (its small size and distinctive coat pattern) have led some authorities to treat it as a separate subspecies under the name Panthera pardus adersi (Pocock, 1932). Descriptions of the Zanzibar Leopard are, however, based upon no more than a handful of specimens. Next to nothing is known about its ecology and behaviour, or how these might differ from that of other leopards. The long genetic isolation of the Zanzibar Leopard in a distinctive small island habitat (with no known large sized competitors or prey in recent times apart from Homo sapiens sapiens and the latter’s domesticates) makes it a prime candidate for further study, a task which is all the more urgent given the current threats to its survival.

Current Conservation Status

A number of authors have presumed the Zanzibar Leopard to be extinct, and the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group’s Wild Cats includes a distribution map which indicates that it has been ‘extirpated’ (1996, p.27). Fortunately this is not yet the case, though our research provided a number of indications that the Zanzibar Leopard may well be close to the brink of extirpation, and will almost certainly disappear if the current level of culling continues.

Given the small size of Unguja island (c.1,650 km2) and what we know of the highest recorded densities of leopards elsewhere, the maximum population which the island could support is probably in the low hundreds, while a figure of around 150 adult individuals would seem to be more realistic. This rough and ready estimate suggests that the Zanzibar Leopard population has always been vulnerable, though it has clearly remained viable over a long period of time. The development and expansion of human settlement and agriculture over the past two millennia, and especially during the past two centuries, have rendered the leopard population even more vulnerable. Events over the past three decades or so have pushed this population to critically low levels.

The British colonial authorities recognised at an early stage that the Zanzibar Leopard was vulnerable, and in 1919 it was placed on a schedule of animals whose killing and utilisation was prohibited without explicit permission. With this measure of protection, leopards appear to have thrived, especially in the coral rag forests and thickets on the north, east and south of the island. As human population grew and the farming frontier expanded, attacks upon people and domestic stock increased in frequency, and in 1950 the government bowed to popular pressure and removed the Zanzibar Leopard from the protected list. Permits were still required to hunt leopards, but in the aftermath of the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 this and other provisions of the Wild Animals Protection Decree (CAP.128 of 1919) and the Zanzibar Leopard Exception Order (G.N.30 of 1950) were generally either forgotten or ignored.

The culling of leopards began in earnest in the mid 1960s when the Revolutionary Government sanctioned the leopard killing and witch finding campaign of Mzee Kitanzi. There are no written records of the number of leopards killed during the Kitanzi campaign, which lasted into the early 1970s, but informants estimate that well over 100 were killed island wide, and as many as 70 in the Jozani area alone. The killing has continued, albeit less systematically, through to the present. We have written records of more than 100 kills in the decade 1985 94: unrecorded kills would probably push this figure much higher. The rate of kills appears to have remained more or less constant over this decade, but has dropped off in the last two years, presumably because there are relatively few leopards left to kill.

Generous estimates put the number of leopards surviving at around 50: the real figure may well be lower than this. The overall distribution of the Zanzibar Leopard has certainly contracted: on many parts of the coral rag where it was formerly common there have been no sightings or other evidence of its presence for a number of years (for example in the north between Matemwe and Nungwi, on Uzi island, and in the far south east around Makunduchi). All of the available evidence suggests that the population is now very low, and that the Zanzibar Leopard is seriously endangered. Even if the killing can be curtailed, there must be serious doubts about its long term survival, both in terms of genetic viability and in view of the ongoing process of habitat destruction and loss of prey species. If the Zanzibar Leopard is to be saved, urgent action is clearly required.

The Extermination of the Zanzibar Leopard

Who is Doing the Killing?

Leopards are almost always killed by male hunters, usually hunting with dogs and shotguns, or in some areas (for example the far south) with spears. A number are killed at night by hunters equipped, illegally, with head torches. Three different categories of hunters are involved (the only three broad categories existing in Zanzibar):

(1) The Wasasi wa Kitaifa (National Hunters). This is the official name of a nationally organised body of hunters which has its origins in the late colonial period and has been fully sponsored by the government since the Revolution of 1964. Its official task is to carry out vermin control, while sport and financial gain from the sale of wildlife products are among the primary motives of the varying number of individuals who take part in its activities. National hunts take place on Sundays (sometimes beginning Saturday evenings) at prearranged locations where the national hunters may also join up with village hunters and others who come along for the entertainment. In the past official hunts were also organised at lower levels of the administrative hierarchy, but the former system has largely broken down, and only national hunts are held with any regularity. The explicit prime target of most of these hunts are Bush Pigs (Potamochoerus porcus), though they are sometimes organised against Blue / Sykes’ Monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis). Other animals, however, are also killed during the hunts; including, on occasion, leopards.

(2) Private town based hunters. There is one well known group of private hunters based in Zanzibar town, who typically set up camp in favoured locations and hunt in the area for a number of days (currently they use two camps regularly: they have been excluded from a third site by local villagers). This small group of hunters sometimes employs local village hunters, and may also be joined from time to time (as is the national hunt) by visiting sport hunters from Muscat or elsewhere in the Arabian peninsula. They have also been reported to kill leopards on occasion, though less often than the Wasasi wa Kitaifa (although this may be a function of the fact that the latter keep records while private hunters are under no requirement to do so).

(3) Village hunters. Available records suggest that more leopards are killed by local village hunters than by the other categories. Hunting and the sale of wildlife products (especially the meat of paa, mini antelope) provides some of these hunters with their principal source of income, though the regularity and intensity with which they hunt varies. In some areas hunting is practised by youths as well as men, though in general it is only the middle aged and older men who have extensive experience of leopard hunting and therefore a reasonably good knowledge of the Zanzibar Leopard and its behaviour. This is a function of the fact that leopards are encountered with much less frequency than they once were, except by very active hunters in areas where the animals are still permanently present in numbers.

More details on past and present hunting practices and the hunters’ knowledge of the Zanzibar Leopard will be presented in the final report.

Why are Leopards Being Killed?

While leopards are sometimes killed accidentally (when mistaken at night for another animal) or deliberately to enhance the status of the hunter, the two main reasons for killing leopards are as follows:

(1) It is generally believed that some (but not all) leopards are ‘kept’ by certain individuals and used by them to intimidate and harass their fellow villagers. This belief (which is no more than a belief) is elaborated in many ways, and incorporates details of how the leopards are bred, fed, and trained by their collective owners, who are classed as witches (wachawi) and therefore widely feared. Belief in leopard keeping has a long history and predates the Kitanzi campaign, which in effect represented the culmination of series of localised efforts to neutralise the leopard keepers and exterminate the leopards which were at their command. Fear of leopard keepers still provides a strong motive for killing leopards, though it also makes it a somewhat perilous enterprise. Some hunters are so afraid that they will avoid killing leopards for this reason. Others, however, including those who were ritually protected during the Kitanzi campaign, are not so afraid, though they will often take care to conceal the fact that they have killed a leopard and take magical precautions against any possible retribution from the leopard’s owners. This is one of the main reasons why leopard kills are underreported. At the same time, the evident decline in the leopard population, and therefore in the number of presumed leopard keepers, has made it easier for some hunters, especially younger men, to kill leopards (including ‘wild’ leopards) without compunction and talk freely about their leopard hunting.

The belief in leopard keeping provides a neat explanation for leopards’ propensity to visit settled areas and prey upon livestock and in some cases attack humans. ‘Kept’ and ‘wild’ leopards are distinguished in the folk belief by their differential behaviour in this regard: any leopard which in seen in the vicinity of settlement, harasses people and their livestock, or does not run away when encountered is automatically assumed to be a ‘kept’ leopard. Leopards which are seen deep in the bush and flee from human contact can safely be assumed to be ‘wild’, though sometimes an element of doubt remains. Conflict between human and leopard populations has therefore provided the underlying reason for much of the culling of the latter by the former. The resulting drastic decline in the leopard population has seen this conflict reduce accordingly, to the extent that many hunters and ordinary villagers are now willing to countenance efforts to conserve the ‘wild’ leopard, providing that they can be prevented from harassing humans and their livestock. It is also evident that a growing number of people, especially the young and educated, look upon the belief in leopard keeping somewhat sceptically. This is particularly the case in Zanzibar town, where some young people do not know or are only dimly aware of the Zanzibar Leopard’s existence and the activities of its alleged keepers.

(2) Unfortunately, hunters have another good reason for killing leopards, whether they fear leopard keepers or not. There is a market in leopard skins, each of which may fetch around Tsh.30,000 (= US$ 50: one of a number of quotes we obtained) for the hunter who sells it. During and for some years after the Kitanzi campaign leopard skins were delivered to the government, to be sold on what was then an open market. At some point, probably before the international ban on trade, this system broke down, leaving no official guidelines at all regarding the disposal of skins. The black market has filled this gap. After passing through one or two middlemen (and rising in price accordingly), most skins are said to find their way to the Tanzanian mainland, en route, presumably to somewhere else (the Gulf / Arabian peninsula was suggested as one likely destination). The Zanzibar end of this trade is evidently not very well organised - hunters may sometimes wait for a month or longer before they can find a buyer - and this probably reflects the fact that the local supply is very limited and many of the skins of inferior quality and size to those which can be found on the mainland. Nonetheless, this trade in skins gives hunters an important incentive to kill leopards: some hunters earn most of their living from the sale of wildlife products, and leopard skins are among the most highly valued of these.

Dead leopards are the source of other products, though none as valuable as the complete skins. The oesophagus and larynx of a killed leopard is usually removed for ritual purposes: consumption of this part of the leopard’s anatomy, together with other medicines, is thought to provide reliable protection against the wrath of a leopard’s keepers, should it have had any and the identity of the hunter is discovered. Claws, tufts of fur and strips of the skin all have a variety of medicinal uses, and are often kept by the hunter and/or given away to friends or sold. Medicines made from the appropriate parts of leopards are said to be available in a well known herbalist’s shop in Zanzibar town, though they are not offered for sale openly. The Kitanzi campaign initiated the practice of eating leopard meat, a way for hunters to demonstrate their lack of fear and contempt for the leopard keepers. Nowadays the meat is more usually fed to a hunter’s dogs, a useful source of extra protein and a quick way of disposing of the evidence of a kill (this was the fate of three leopard cubs killed in the Dimani area earlier this year).

There are, therefore, sufficient reasons for hunters to kill leopards whenever they chance upon them. The days of organised leopard hunting have long since passed, largely because there are not enough leopards left to make such hunts worthwhile. Opportunistic killing is, however, perfectly capable of finishing off the survivors, and stopping this practice must be the first target of efforts to conserve the Zanzibar Leopard.

The Conservation of the Zanzibar Leopard

Different options for the conservation of the Zanzibar Leopard will be considered in detail in the final report of this study. Given the leopard’s endangered status, the first priority of any programme must be to curtail, as far as possible, killing by hunters. The enforcement of existing legislation and its widespread publicisation is an obvious first step. This will require close consultation between the Commission for Natural Resources (which should be responsible for the issuing of hunting permits) and other government bodies involved, particularly the officially sponsored Wasasi wa Kitaifa. The current institutional position of the Wasasi wa Kitaifa means that they can potentially play an important role in promoting leopard conservation as well as that of other protected species. However, considering the fact that most leopards are killed by village hunters, it is evident that a conservation programme will not succeed in the long term unless it addresses the aspirations and fears of local stakeholders, regardless of whatever controls are imposed or recommended from above. From this point of view, careful consideration must be given to the extent to which leopard conservation can and should be handled as an isolated issue, and to what extent it might be linked to the wider issues of biodiversity protection and wildlife / natural resource management at the community level. There is clearly scope for both approaches to be followed in a complementary fashion, with the Zanzibar Leopard acting as another ‘flagship’ species for the island’s conservation: assuming, of course, that it stays around for long enough to do so.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009


by Martin Walsh and Helle Goldman

[text (with updated references) of an article originally published in 2003 in Nature East Africa, 33 (1/2): 14-16. An abridged version, 'The Zanzibar Leopard – Dead or Alive?', was published in 2004 in Tanzanian Affairs, 77: 20-23]

The Zanzibar Leopard, Panthera pardus adersi, is an elusive and possibly extinct subspecies endemic to Unguja (Zanzibar) Island. It has presumably been evolving in isolation from other leopards since at least the end of the last Ice Age, when Unguja was separated from the Tanzanian mainland by rising sea levels. The “founder effect” (genetic characteristics of the marooned population) and/or adaptation to local island conditions produced a smaller leopard than its continental relatives and one which “changed its spots”, or rather saw its more numerous rosettes partially disintegrate into spots (Pakenham, 1984; Kingdon, 1989).

Not much is known about the biology of the Zanzibar Leopard. Visitors to the natural history section of the Zanzibar Museum will be familiar with the stuffed and rather faded specimen kept in a display case there together with an old black and white photograph of a leopard trap. Apart from scraps of pelt furtively kept by hunters, to date we have only located five other skins: three in the Natural History Museum in London and two in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Of these only the type specimen in London and the two Harvard skins are accompanied by their skulls.

The Zanzibar Leopard’s behaviour is also poorly understood. It has never been studied in the wild and the last time a researcher claimed in print to have seen one was in the early 1980s. Rural Zanzibaris’ descriptions of the leopard and its habits are coloured by the widespread belief that an alarming number of these carnivores are kept by witches (wachawi) and sent by them to harm or otherwise harass their fellow villagers. This belief comes together with an elaborate package of ideas about how leopards are bred, trained, exchanged and sent to do the evil bidding of their owners. For local farmers this supplies a neat explanation for predation by leopards on livestock and humans, and more generally for their appearance “out of place” in the vicinity of farms and villages (Goldman and Walsh, 1997).

The growth of human population and agriculture in the 20th century was largely responsible for this state of affairs, as people encroached on the habitat of leopards and the animals they preyed upon. Increasing conflict with leopards and the fear that this generated led to a series of campaigns to exterminate them. These were localised at first, but became island-wide after the Zanzibar Revolution, when a combined anti-witchcraft and leopard-killing campaign was launched under the leadership of Unguja’s most famous witch-finder, Kitanzi. The long-term result of this campaign and the subsequent classification of leopards as “vermin” was to bring them to the brink of extinction (Walsh and Goldman, 2003).

The available evidence suggests that when we began our joint research on the Zanzibar Leopard in the mid-1990s there were still a few of these elusive animals remaining (Goldman and Walsh, 2002). Now we can’t be so sure. Most zoologists think that this island leopard is extinct: indeed some of them already thought so when we began our joint study in 1996. This pessimistic conclusion scotched subsequent proposals for a conservation initiative targeting the Zanzibar Leopard: if they were gone or going then there wasn’t much point in trying to do anything about it - apart from supporting the habitat conservation initiatives that were already underway on the island.

By contrast, the majority of people who live and work on the “coral rag” lands of southern and eastern of Unguja, including government staff and conservationists, believe that the Zanzibar Leopard has not been completely exterminated. Claims of sightings abound, as do reports of other evidence for leopards’ continued presence on the island and their nefarious use by witches. Many of these reports are difficult to evaluate and impossible to verify independently. So far none of the cases that we have investigated over the past two years (2002-03) has produced confirmation of a sighting or other leopard signs.

The recent scientific “discovery” of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, Genetta servalina archeri, previously known only to islanders themselves, suggests that perhaps Unguja has yet to give up all of its zoological secrets. This small carnivore, another island endemic, was first described from an old skin and skull obtained in 1995. Its status was uncertain until a number of individuals were photo-trapped in January 2003 (Goldman and Winther-Hansen, 2003a; 2003b). If the Zanzibar Leopard survives, then similar standards of proof will have to be applied for any record to be acceptable to the scientific community. Otherwise most of us will get no closer to it than that faded museum specimen and those colourful cryptozoological narratives.

In addition to all of the people and institutions acknowledged in our original (1997) report, we would like to thank Daphne Hills in the Zoology Department (Mammal Group) of the Natural History Museum, London, and Judith Chupasko and Mark Omura in the Mammal Department, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, for facilitating the examination and recording of specimens.


Goldman, H. V. and Walsh, M. T. 1997. A Leopard in Jeopardy: An Anthropological Survey of Practices and Beliefs Which Threaten the Survival of the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi), Zanzibar Forestry Technical Paper No. 63, Jozani Chwaka Bay Conservation Project, Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar.

Goldman, H. V. and Walsh, M. T. 2002. ‘Is the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) Extinct?’, Journal of East African Natural History 91 (1/2): 15-25. [with separate map]

Goldman, H. V. and Winther-Hansen, J. 2003a. The Small Carnivores of Unguja: Results of a Photo-trapping Survey in Jozani Forest Reserve, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Tromsø: privately printed.

Goldman, H. V. and Winther-Hansen, J. 2003b. ‘First Photographs of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, Genetta servalina archeri, and Other Endemic Subspecies on the Island of Unguja, Tanzania’, Small Carnivore Conservation 29: 1-4.

Kingdon, J. 1989. Island Africa: The Evolution of Africa's Rare Animals and Plants. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pakenham, R. H. W. 1984. The Mammals of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands. Harpenden: privately printed.

Walsh, M. T. and Goldman, H. V. 2003. ‘Killing the King: Political Imperatives and the Extermination of the Zanzibar Leopard’, paper presented to the International Symposium on Le Symbolisme des animaux: l’animal “clef de voûte” dans la tradition orale et les interactions homme-nature, Paris (Villejuif), France, 12-14 November 2003.