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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 The written briefing and its provisional conclusions were superseded by our final report, A Leopard in Jeopardy, which eventually appeared in 1997.]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.

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