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Saturday, 25 September 2010


Earlier this week we presented our paper on 'Chasing imaginary leopards' to the VIII European Swahili Workshop on Contemporary Issues in Swahili Ethnography  in the University of Oxford. The core of the paper describes the way in which researchers and other visitors to Zanzibar have fallen for local beliefs about the Zanzibar leopard and have been drawn into futile searches for the leopards that are allegedly kept by witches on Unguja island. This section on 'Kept leopard chases' is followed by another that describes local proposals for the display of  leopards.  Here's the draft text in full:

Displaying kept leopards

Whereas foreign researchers have sometimes been beguiled into believing that leopard-keeping is really practised on Unguja, some Zanzibari researchers and others have sought to reconcile their own witchcraft beliefs with conservation science in a quite different way, by proposing that kept leopards be displayed to the public and tourists in particular. Zanzibar had a zoo (of sorts) in the period after the Revolution, and exotic animals have been displayed from time to time. In the mid-1990s a small private zoo, Zala Park, that houses mainly reptiles and amphibians, was established in Muungoni village near to Jozani Forest. But it seems most likely that the modern idea of displaying leopards arose in response to the research that was being undertaken at that time. One of the questions that SIT (School for International Training) student Benjamin Selkow asked his interviewees in 1995 was: “Hypothetically, how would you feel if a zoo or holding pen with a Zanzibar leopard was built somewhere in Zanzibar?” (1995: 12). He reports:

I received a mixed response to the proposal of a Zanzibar leopard holding pen. The majority supported the hypothetical plan and thought it was a good idea for a variety of reasons. Some said the present generation (those under forty years of age) has only heard about and had never seen a leopard and probably would not unless there was a zoo. Others said it was a good way to educate people about its history without them feeling threatened because it would be in a cage (and there would be some gratification in seeing “the pest” caged). Many supported the idea because it would attract more tourists which would help the local businesses as well as being a source of government revenue.
  Several interviewees were against this proposal or would support it with some reservations. One man suggested breeding leopards to increase the population, and then distribute them to zoos at hotels around the island for educational and revenue purposes. A hunter from Upenja was quite adamant against breeding them, saying that only two to four should be kept. He wanted all offspring to be killed because he believed that they should only be for exhibition and not re-introduced into the wild. Another man said it would be a good idea for future generations, but not for the present because there is still too much “aggressive fear.” A hunter from Paje supported this and said that exhibiting a Zanzibar leopard would
[be] touching too sensitive an area with locals. He proposed exhibiting a mainland sub-species as a first step. Finally, several interviewees thought it would be a bad idea because the zoo would shame hunters, exhibit a creature that had too many superstitious and magical issues associated with it, and make owners vengeful because the respect by fear status that owners enjoy would be downgraded. (1995: 20)

Did Selkow help to plant the idea of a leopard pen or zoo? We may never know, but certainly by the time that we began joint fieldwork in July 1996 it wasn’t a new idea. MTW’s field assistant, who was an experienced hunter and former Secretary of the government-subsidised Wasasi wa Kitaifa (National Hunters’ organisation), enthusiastically asked a number of our interviewees whether it would be feasible to persuade leopard keepers to display their leopards to the public and fee-paying tourists. The same idea also came up in the discussion that followed our end-of-fieldwork presentation to JCBCP and other government staff (Walsh 1996). We were careful in that meeting not to overtly criticise the beliefs of the many people in the audience who believed in leopard-keeping, and we didn’t question the display proposal as directly as we might have done otherwise.

In October 1996 HVG and a colleague in the Commission for Natural Resources, Wahira J. Othman, were assigned to investigate a proposition that had been made to the Commission. They drove down to Kizimkazi to meet with four men who were proposing to capture and display leopards. At that time Kizimkazi was just beginning to become known for its dolphin tourism. They claimed to have seen a leopard in the area in recent months, and were firm believers in leopard-keeping, expressing the possibility that all leopards might be kept leopards. But they weren’t worried by being associated with witchcraft, because they planned to keep leopards in the open, in a zoo along the lines of Zala Park. When pressed, they didn’t have a clear idea of how they would obtain the animals. Perhaps they would buy them from a keeper whose leopard had given birth to cubs, and who could then instruct them on how to take care of the growing animals. In this case they’d also make use of the knowledge of ‘experts’ at the Commission. Or they might capture wild leopards using a cage trap with live bait. They opined that it would cost around Tshs 300,000 to purchase or capture a single leopard. Once they had a leopard in captivity, they would display it in an enclosure among bushes near the shore. This would be some 30 m x 20 m, and quite high. They also planned to build a reception area and small restaurant, at a cost of some Tshs 700,000. At this point in the conversation it seemed that they might be angling for support from the Commission, but they didn’t ask for this explicitly. Leopard keepers would show them how to train leopards. They wanted to start with two: a male and a female. One of the group of men suggested that they might kill surplus leopards, and sell the skins, but, sensing HVG’s unspoken disapproval, one of his colleagues countered that they would set them free in the bush. Before taking leave, Wahira let them know that the Commission would consider their idea, but that if it was approved, it would only be on a trial basis. The men agreed. On their way back to Zanzibar town HVG expressed her doubts about the proposal to Wahira, and did not hear about it again.

The leopard display idea clearly didn’t wither and die after the dissemination of our final report, in which we made it clear that we thought leopard-keeping to be wholly imaginary (Goldman and Walsh 1997). Indeed it surfaced in a quite unexpected place, in a debate in the Zanzibar House of Representatives in April 2003, when the Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment and Co-operatives declared that his ministry would be happy to buy leopards to display them to tourists. At least this is how it was reported in the press:

Government is ready to buy Leopards

  THE MINISTRY for Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment and Co-operatives in Zanzibar has said that it is ready to buy Leopards if people come forward to sell them, reports MWANTANGA AME.
  This announcement was made the day before yesterday in the hall of the House of Representatives in Zanzibar town. It was made by the Deputy Minister and Representative for Uzini constituency, Tafana Kassim Mzee, when he was contributing to the debate about starting a special fund.
He declared that his Ministry was ready to buy Leopards so that they could be displayed in tourist areas.
  The Representative pointed out that some tourists already came to Zanzibar to see snakes. If Zanzibar had enough Leopards for the purpose then revenues could be raised accordingly. Tafana said that if the country had these animals they would increase government income, and he asked for citizens to sell them to the state.
  He let it be known that the long-held fear that anyone caught with a Leopard would be punished was a thing of the past, and that the government had no plans to do that again.
“There’s a fear that if anyone appears with a Leopard, then he’ll feel the noose around his neck. Get rid of that fear: my Ministry is ready to buy Leopards; I declare that we will buy those Leopards”, he said.
  Another Representative who contributed to this debate, Brigadier-General (Rtd.) Adam Mwakanjuki, said that in the past Zanzibar had a lot of Leopards, but that now they had disappeared.
  He said that it was good that the Ministry was thinking of obtaining these animals so that they could be put in a special reserve and the government make money.
  He said that it was sad that Zanzibar now only had one specimen of that animal in the museum at Mnazi Mmoja in Zanzibar town.
(Ame 2003)

To anyone who has studied the history of Zanzibar leopard-killing since the Revolution, this statement represents an ironic turnaround. Adam Mwakanjuki was one of the original revolutionaries, and for many years the Minister of Agriculture responsible for a policy that classed leopards as vermin and contradicted the legal protection that the law was supposed to offer to them. As far as we are aware no one has yet come forward to sell a live Zanzibar leopard to the government.


Ame, Mwantanga 2003. Serikali iko tayari kununua chui. Zanzibar Leo, Sunday 13 April 2003, 6.

Goldman, Helle V. and Martin T. Walsh 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.

Selkow, Benjamin 1995. A Survey of Villager Perceptions of the Zanzibar Leopard. Unpublished student paper, prepared for the SIT Study Abroad program, Zanzibar.

Walsh, Martin T. 1996. The Zanzibar Leopard: An Anthropological Survey. End of Fieldwork Summary. Report to Jozani Chwaka Bay Conservation Project, CARE Tanzania, and Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar.

Walsh, Martin T. and Helle V. Goldman 2010. Chasing imaginary leopards: science, witchcraft and the politics of conservation in Zanzibar. Paper prepared for the VIII European Swahili Workshop, Contemporary Issues in Swahili Ethnography, University of Oxford, 19-21 September 2010.

See also Martin Walsh's blog post on the 'Imaginary animals of Zanzibar', East African Notes and Records, posted 25 September 2010.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad that you are doing this research. Why isn't there a bigger concern out there for this animal? Today, MSN featured something about this particular leopard and it made me sad. If this leopard is still out there, I hope it remains hidden until attitudes towards this animal change. I am also shocked at the poaching/safari hunts that go on in this part of the world by the rich. It sickens me. Thank you for writing about this very important issue. I hope it's not too late.