Nimeona kisutu, mwenye kisutu sijamwona

Saturday, 7 May 2011


Over the Easter holiday we finished drafting a paper about the Zanzibar leopard for an edited volume provisionally entitled Animals Out of Place: Cryptozoology in Anthropological Perspective. This book gathers together case studies from around the world and is being edited by Samantha Hurn, who lectures in the School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. There are plans to present some of its chapters in a panel on 'Cryptozoology: animals out of place or time' at ASA11: Vital powers and politics: human interactions with living things, the annual conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonweath, which will be held at Lampeter in September. Here's an extract from our draft chapter, 'Cryptids and credulity: the Zanzibar leopard and other imaginary beings', which still has to be reviewed by colleagues. It follows sections on 'The Zanzibar leopard in scientific discourse', 'Ethnotaxonomies of the Zanzibar leopard', and 'Witchcraft and leopard-keeping narratives':


Unguja island
When we undertook our consultancy in July 1996 there appeared to be good evidence for the continuing presence of the Zanzibar leopard in the south and east of Unguja island. National Hunters’ reports indicated that leopards were still being killed (along with other ‘vermin’): the last kill on record was from a hunt in Jambiani on 17-18 April 1995 (Goldman and Walsh 1997: 31-36). We were also told of more recent kills by independent groups of hunters. The former secretary of the National Hunters, who worked as our research assistant, told us that ‘Omani Arab’ hunters from Mlandege in Zanzibar town were rumoured to have killed a leopard at Mtule, between Kitogani and Paje, in March 1996 (Goldman and Walsh 1997: 29). An interviewee in Dimani told us that three leopard cubs had been killed by young hunters in that area on or around 21 April 1996 (Goldman and Walsh 1997: 26). These and reports of earlier kills were supplemented by descriptions of recent leopard sightings and other evidence for their presence, including seven reported sightings in 1996 (Goldman and Walsh 1997: 3, 24-36; 2002: 19-22).

At the time we had no reason to disbelieve these claims, though some experienced hunters said that they had not seen evidence of leopards for a number of years. We knew that most kills by independent and local groups of hunters would be hidden from official view and would not be included in National Hunters’ statistics. And their former secretary – who showed us his own list of kills – told us that the National Hunters did not submit records of all of their leopard kills because they were concerned that the hunting of leopards might be stopped by the government. As it happens, when we began our joint research moves were afoot to do just this. The recently passed Forest Resources Management and Conservation Act of 1996 provided for the preparation of lists of protected wild animals and plants, and, in the interim, the use of lists that had been on the statutes since the colonial period but ignored since the Zanzibar Revolution (Sections 76-79, Part VIII, “Conservation of Wild Animals and Wild Plants”, in The Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar 1996: 40-42). The Zanzibar leopard was on the old schedule of protected wild animals (Walsh and Goldman 2007: 1140-1141, 1150), and was about to be included in the new one. As a result it had become illegal (again) to kill, injure, destroy, capture or collect leopards without a special permit, unless this was done “to defend against an attack or imminent threat of attack on human life” (Section 77 in The Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar 1996: 40).

This new legislation seems to have had an immediate effect on the practice of the National Hunters. From January 1996 onwards the vermin hunting statistics based on their reports no longer included leopard kills.[13] Since July 1996 we have not been told of any leopard kills by National Hunters. Nor have we heard of any certainly killed by local groups, individual hunters, or others. In August 1999 the then Head of Conservation in Zanzibar told Goldman that he had heard that a dead leopard had been found near Kinyasini about a year earlier (i.e. sometime in mid-late 1998), but he knew no more details, including whether this leopard had been killed or not. We do not know whether the lack of information about leopard kills in the past decade and a half reflects reluctance to talk about an activity that has been (re)defined as illegal, or the fact that very few and perhaps no leopards at all have been killed since 1996. It may be that there are very few or no leopards left to kill on Unguja. Otherwise we wonder whether we would have picked up on more stories of kills had we spent longer in the field or interviewed more hunters during subsequent research trips and other visits to Zanzibar.

At the same time, reports of leopard sightings and other evidence for their presence continue to reach us. Every time we visit Zanzibar and meet with former colleagues working in the Department of Commercial Crops, Fruits and Forestry (DCCFF) we are titillated with tales of sightings and other incidents, some of them involving kept leopards and their alleged keepers, others more prosaic, and so to us more believable. During his latest trip in October 2007, Walsh was told at the headquarters of Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park that about three months earlier a ranger on night patrol had reported seeing a tree shaking and then a half-eaten Blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis) – presumed to be a leopard’s meal – lodged in its branches. The details of this, it was said, had been recorded by the Chief Park Warden (who was one of our research assistants in 1996), and in a subsequent interview the latter recounted that the ranger in question was a 40-year-old man from Ukongoroni, and that what he had actually seen was not a monkey, but a leopard in a fork of a tree about four metres off the ground. This was not at night, but around ten o’clock in the morning at a place called Kiwandani. The Chief Park Warden was not sure of the date: he had maybe interviewed the ranger in April, and perhaps the incident had taken place in January 2007. The ranger was very excited when he came to tell him what he had seen. He described making eye contact with the leopard, whereupon he began to step slowly backwards, thinking that the leopard’s keeper might be somewhere near. He also related how he had watched the leopard stretching its way down the trunk of the tree after leaving the fork in which it was resting. He had not seen a leopard for many years, but claimed not to have been afraid by this unexpected encounter.

It is instructive here to note the discrepancies between the second- and third-hand reports of this sighting: the ranger involved would presumably have given a different account again. In the same interview the Chief Park Warden also mentioned that leopards had been much in evidence in Makunduchi in 2007: they were reported to have preyed on chickens, ducks and goats, and villagers had responded by reading the halbadiri curse [...] against the leopard-keepers, whoever they were. Other reports of leopard sightings have come to us by email. In February 2009 the Zanzibari owner of Zala Park, a small private zoo in Muungoni, wrote to say that a leopard had been heard at Mtule on the Kitogani-Paje road, and that the watchman at a brick-makers claimed to have seen it twice, in December 2008 and January 2009. In March 2009 we were copied into correspondence by the Chief Park Warden reporting that since the start of the year four rangers had independently seen a leopard at a single location in the forest in Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park. The last sighting was on 1 March. We were unable, however, to obtain further details about these sightings. It is difficult to elicit information on cases like this at a distance, though our former assistant does make an effort to record particular incidents. Indeed he was also involved in the following case, which provides further illustration of the difficulty that we have in verifying reports and reconciling the accounts of different informants.

The Wangwani site
 In April 2002 this officer told Walsh that in August 2001, while undertaking a survey of the mangrove forest north-west of Jozani, he, other staff, and the local villagers who were also members of the surveying team, had come across leopard tracks at Wangwani. They followed the spoor until they encountered the remains of a male Suni antelope (Neotragus moschatus), which they assumed to have been killed by the leopard. He collected one of its horns and also leopard faeces from the site, and took them back to Forestry Commission headquarters at Maruhubi, where they were kept in bottles. However, when Walsh asked to see this material, it could not be found, and he was led to understand that the bottles had probably been thrown away by cleaners or other staff, perhaps afraid of the presence of leopard-related relics in their workplace. Walsh followed this up by interviewing a Jozani Forest Guard who had been present when the finds had been made at Wangwani. He provided a detailed account that differed in a number of ways from the first one. He agreed, however, that they had collected leopard faeces, adding that the men on the team (eight in all) were quite apprehensive about this, afraid that it was a kept leopard and knowing that keeping such objects was a dangerous thing to do. The first officer (our former assistant) later said that he had kept this material on his desk for some time, but that it had indeed been thrown out by the office cleaners. It emerged that the same fate had also befallen presumed leopard scat collected by Goldman and handed over to the office in 1997.[14] In January 2003 Goldman followed up on the Wangwani case. Two of the other men who had been on the original survey team took her to the site of the antelope kill, and provided accounts that were at variance with both of those given to Walsh. They could not cast any light on the loss of the material taken to Maruhubi, but like others in the party were clearly steeped in leopard-keeping lore and not entirely happy with the collection of leopard faeces. Further efforts by Goldman to find out more information produced only more discrepancies, but did at least result in the finding of the original data record of the mangrove survey (Walsh and Goldman 2010: 13-14).

Despite the discrepancies, and the allusions to leopard-keeping, it is easy to imagine a core of truth in these accounts, and to hypothesise that they were based on real sightings and/or signs of a leopard’s presence – or another animal mistaken for a leopard. But other claims stretch credibility. We have written at length elsewhere (Walsh and Goldman 2010) about the ‘kept leopard chases’ that a number of researchers and visitors to Zanzibar have taken part in and sometimes paid money for, lured by the promise of being shown a tame leopard. These quixotic quests for imaginary animals have always proved fruitless, much to the chagrin of their pursuers. In recent years Zanzibari conservationists have joined the pursuit along with non-Zanzibaris beguiled by leopard-keeping narratives. In January 2003 DCCFF staff told Goldman about an ongoing kept leopard chase that had involved a number of them. According to one official in the department, it began three months earlier with reports of leopard predation on livestock. Another official in the same department denied that there had been reports of leopard attacks on livestock. Instead he claimed that the case had been brought to the attention of the DCCFF because a leopard had been seen entering and exiting a house in Marumbi, and the person who had observed this had been bewitched and struck mute. DCCFF employees were sent to follow up on these reports, and one of them saw the house of the supposed leopard keeper together with a peculiar opening at the back that would allow a leopard to come and go. The visitors met with the deputy Sheha (local administrator) to talk about events, but were spooked into silence when they realised that the alleged leopard keeper was lurking nearby. A DCCFF team returned again in January 2003, and their leader asked the deputy Sheha to collaborate in an attempt to get a photo of the kept leopard. The deputy was very reluctant to agree to this and clearly afraid, but was told that as a government employee he had no option but to cooperate. Eventually he yielded, but it was agreed that when the researchers returned with a camera they would have to pretend that they were doing something else, like surveying monkeys or birds. Back in Zanzibar town, the team leader approached Goldman, who was then photo-trapping in Jozani forest, hoping that she would carry out the plan, for which transport for a team of DCCFF staff as well as money for accommodation and a payment to the Sheha were all required. While she considered the limited time and resources at her disposal – and the implications of the discrepancies in different accounts, together with a rumour that the leopard in question had been shifted to another location – the team leader promised to write a letter of introduction that would smooth the way with the local administrator. This letter was never delivered and there were other indications that the DCCFF had dropped their plan to follow up on this case. That was the last we heard of the Marumbi leopard.

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 by proposing that kept leopards be displayed to the public and tourists in particular. The idea of a zoo or holding pen for leopards was suggested by one of the American student researchers referred to earlier, Benjamin Selkow (1995: 12); it has since been taken up enthusiastically by Zanzibaris believing that leopard keepers might make good use of their leopards in this way. One of our research assistants in 1996, the former secretary of the National Hunters, 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 the Jozani-Chwaka Bay Conservation Project (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 did not question the display proposal as directly as we might have done otherwise. In October 1996 Goldman and a colleague in the Commission for Natural Resources were asked to investigate just such a proposition. They met with four men in Kizimkazi who wanted to capture and display leopards: they claimed to have seen a leopard in the area in recent months, and thought it possible that this and indeed all leopards were kept. But they had no clear idea of how they would obtain and care for the animals, other than making a range of suggestions (for details see Walsh and Goldman 2010: 15-16). The proposal did not receive official approval and Goldman (who was then working for JCBCP) heard nothing more of this scheme.

The leopard display idea clearly did not 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: iii, 1, 13-15). 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 (Walsh and Goldman 2010: 16-17). As far as we are aware, no one has yet come forward to sell a live Zanzibar leopard to the government. Needless to say, proposals for the display of leopards continue to be made by independent entrepreneurs such as the owner of Zala Park. In February 2009 he wrote to Goldman to tell her about his plan to build a leopard enclosure at a site in Pete. He asked for any advice she could give on keeping leopards for the purposes of conservation, education and research. In a subsequent communication he declared that he had been forced to put his plans for the new facility on hold because he had been denied permission by the authorities. Expansion of the existing zoo at Muungoni would also require official approval if he was to display animals protected under the Forest Resources Management and Conservation Act of 1996.

Zanzibar servaline genet
These contemporary notions about the possible social and economic benefits of displaying captive leopards are indicative of the continuing strength of the leopard-keeping narratives that underpin them. Meanwhile, we can hypothesise that the cultural salience of leopards on Unguja, the widespread belief in the existence of leopard-keeping, and the consequent apprehension that many people feel about this form of witchcraft, result in many more imagined sightings and claims regarding leopards than would otherwise be the case. Hunters themselves note that some of their colleagues and fellow villagers are liable to mistake other, smaller carnivores on the island for leopards.[15] These include the spotted and banded African civet (Civettictis civetta), which is explicitly compared to the Zanzibar leopard (see Table 1), and the Zanzibar servaline genet (Genetta servalina archeri), known in some parts of Unguja as uchui (Goldman et al. 2004: 6), literally ‘the slender leopard’.[16] The tracks of different local carnivores (and sometimes other animals) can also be readily confused, for example when they have been made in sand or on dusty ground. During their 1997 survey, the Stuarts, who had authored a field guide to tracks and signs (1994), were disappointed by a number of such misidentifications. They cast doubt on the identity of the alleged leopard pugmarks illustrated in our printed report (Goldman and Walsh 1997: 56), and concluded that many islanders erroneously attribute the tracks of the African civet to the leopard (1997a: 4; 1997b: 1; 1998: 37).[17]

There is a large literature on the psychology of eyewitness testimony (e.g. Kapardis 2003: 21-125), and a smaller literature on the evaluation of claimed animal sightings, some of it written by cryptozoologists (e.g. Rabbit 2002). It is widely acknowledged that preconceptions can affect perceptions, and there is little doubt that this has happened in the case of the Zanzibar leopard, generating both false sightings and the misinterpretation of tracks and perhaps also other signs. Kept leopards and leopard keepers are imaginary beings, and belief in them has certainly contributed to imagined sightings, mistaken identifications, and the proliferation of gossip and rumour relating to these (cf. Stewart and Strathern 2004). But some false attributions would probably be made anyway, for example when other animals or indirect evidence for their presence are confused with the leopard and its presumed signs. It is also possible that some misidentifications are not involuntary, but fabricated or otherwise elaborated by informants eager to please researchers, as the Stuarts argued (1997a: 4). We have seen examples of this ourselves when asking people to identify photographs of animals, a procedure which suffers from a number of pitfalls (cf. Barley 1983: 96-97; Diamond 1989).

This leads us to ask whether all recent reports of leopard sightings and signs can be explained away, as the Stuarts suggested, although even they allowed that a few individual leopards might survive (1997a: 3; 1997b: 1). As we have seen, some reports are more convincing than others. Leopards elsewhere are known to be largely nocturnal and secretive animals, capable of roaming through city suburbs as well as through the African countryside without being observed (Guggisberg 1975: 228; Seidensticker 1991: 107; Nowell and Jackson 1996: 28; Sunquist and Sunquist 2002: 321). With this in mind, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that the Zanzibar leopard does persist, as we stated in an earlier paper (Goldman and Walsh 2002). The same is suggested by the relatively recent discovery of two nocturnal carnivores on Unguja: the Zanzibar servaline genet in 1995 (Van Rompaey and Colyn 1998; Goldman and Winther-Hansen 2003a; 2003b), and a local population of the African palm civet (Nandinia binotata) in 1998-99 (Perkin 2004). Both of these were previously unrecorded, though they were known to villagers (Goldman et al. 2004).


The title of Jared Diamond’s ‘Extant unless proven extinct? Or, extinct unless proven extant?’ (1987) summed up a question that continues to be debated by conservation biologists (e.g. Brussard 1986; King 1988; Mace and Collar 1995; Reed 1996; Kéry 2002; Butchart et al. 2006; Roberts et al. 2009; Vogel et al. 2009). How is extinction in the recent past to be recognised or inferred? As Diamond and others have observed, detecting extinction is often easier said than done. The various qualitative and quantitative answers given to this question have influenced successive editions of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.[18] The current Guidelines for Using the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria (Version 8.1) state that:
“A taxon is Extinct when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died. A taxon is presumed Extinct when exhaustive surveys in known and/or expected habitat, at appropriate times (diurnal, seasonal, annual), throughout its historic range have failed to record an individual. Surveys should be over a time frame appropriate to the taxon’s life cycles and life form.” (IUCN 2010: 9).
Operationalising this definition, however, and drawing a sharp dividing line between the IUCN categories of Critically Endangered and Extinct, has proved problematic. One problem is that premature declarations of demise can lead to what has been called the ‘Romeo Error’, whereby “any protective measures and funding are removed from threatened species in the mistaken belief that they are already extinct” (IUCN 2010: 67, citing Collar 1998). In response to discussions of this problem (see Butchart et al. 2006), the IUCN has introduced a qualifying tag so that taxa of indeterminate status can be described as ‘Critically Endangered (possibly extinct)’:
“Critically Endangered (possibly extinct) taxa are those that are, on the balance of evidence, likely to be extinct, but for which there is a small chance that they may be extant. Hence they should not be listed as Extinct until adequate surveys have failed to record the species and local or unconfirmed reports have been investigated and discounted.” (IUCN 2010: 67)
If we had to choose a category (and tag) for the Zanzibar leopard it would probably be this one.[19] But we are also aware that a single corroborated sighting (for example supported by photographic evidence), or a physical specimen (and genetic profile) with well-documented provenance, would be sufficient to remove the ‘possibly extinct’ tag, at least in the short term.

Compare the Stuarts’ conclusion following their 1997 survey:
“We encountered absolutely no sign of leopards during the survey and we believe that this cat is now extinct on the island, or at best present in such low numbers that there is little, or no, hope of doing anything to save it in the wild state.” (Stuart and Stuart 1997b: 1)
Although they allowed for the survival of leopards, this pessimistic statement, as we have seen, discouraged further research and efforts to develop a leopard conservation programme.[20] The Stuarts’ search for leopards and leopard sign, which included camera-trapping, together with a later photo-trapping survey conducted in Jozani forest by Goldman and Winther-Hansen (2003a), have been the only systematic attempts to detect the Zanzibar leopard to date. These do not constitute the “exhaustive surveys in known and/or expected habitat” without any record of an individual that are required if a taxon is to satisfy IUCN criteria for Extinction. The Stuarts were sceptical about the evidence for recent leopard kills and sightings that we recorded in our 1997 report, and discounted other reports that they heard in the field without thoroughly investigating these. Nor, it must be said, have we had the opportunity to follow up many of the accounts that we have been given since 1997 that might be counted as “reasonably convincing recent local reports or unconfirmed sightings” and that would support the categorisation of the Zanzibar leopard as ‘Critically Endangered (possibly extinct)’ (IUCN 2010: 68). Needless to say, it would be difficult to apply probabilistic methods for inferring extinction (e.g. Roberts et al. 2009; Vogel et al. 2009) to these reports, given questions about their reliability, and the fact that many of them are not first-hand. Likewise any attempt to use the statistics of leopard kills for the same purpose would run into difficulties because they represent kills by only one group – the National Hunters – and because they appear not to have been kept once it became illegal again to kill leopards. Even if these methods were applied, it would only take a single corroborated observation, sample or specimen to falsify a hypothesis of extinction. Argument then shifts to determining what exactly counts as corroboration and so adequate evidence for falsification (cf. Roberts et al. 2009), and brings us back to assessing the reliability of Zanzibaris’ claims to have seen leopards and other signs of their presence.

Cryptozoology flourishes in this epistemological abyss. [the discussion continues]
ENDNOTES [numbered as in the draft]
13. In addition to the statistics for the years 1983-95 analysed in our earlier work (Goldman and Walsh 1997; 2002), we have since obtained a complete record for 1995, and for the years 1996-99 and 2001-02.

14. Our interest in locating this material was prompted by the possibility that it might be used in genetic analysis, but nothing kept in the Maruhubi office appears to have survived, including the photographs of leopard pelt and presumed pugmarks that were included in the original printed version of our 1997 report (Goldman and Walsh 1997: 55-56, Figures 7-12: these particular images are therefore absent from the more widely distributed pdf version of the report).

15. On the other hand, there are a number of reports of a leopard being accidentally shot by a hunter who has caught no more than a fleeting glimpse of it in the dark, and assumed that it was a duiker or other animal.

16. The local dialect name uchui (earlier *luchui) is derived from a combination of the Swahili class 11 noun prefix u- (*lu), which typically signifies length and/or thinness, and the noun root -chui, ‘leopard’ (cf. Nurse and Hinnebusch 1993: 349-351, 639).

17. Ordinarily, pawprints left by African civets and leopards are readily distinguishable because the former include claw marks whereas the latter do not: leopards keep their claws retracted when walking (Stuart and Stuart 1994: 17, 19, 26, 40). The Stuarts argued that the clawless pugmarks that are sometimes observed on paths in the Zanzibari forest and bush are signs of large African civets whose claws have been worn down by the rocky outcroppings prevalent on the coral rag of Unguja. Zanzibaris who are knowledgeable about wildlife deny this; according to them, African civet claws are never abraded to the extent that they leave no trace in pugmarks.

18. For the IUCN Red List and its background see (last accessed on 30 April 2011).

19. Our Zanzibari informants, however, have offered a wide variety of opinions that would translate into the full range of IUCN categories and tags: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Critically Endangered (possibly extinct in the wild), Critically Endangered (possibly extinct), Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct (IUCN 2010: 7-9, 67-70)!

20. This example suggests that applying the ‘possibly extinct’ tag might not always avert the Romeo Error: declaring an animal extinct or almost certain to become so (“Going or gone” in the words of the title of Butchart et al. 2006) can kill off hope and funding for its conservation as effectively as pronouncing its definite extirpation.


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Walsh, Martin and Helle Goldman 2010. Chasing imaginary leopards: science, witchcraft and the politics of conservation in Zanzibar. Paper presented to Contemporary Issues in Swahili Ethnography, VIII European Swahili Workshop, University of Oxford, 19-21 September 2010. [subsequently revised and submitted for publication]