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Leopards in South Africa: Trapped in a conservation 'blind-spot.'

The Problem; As one of the most adaptable cat species on the planet, leopards rarely attract much in the way of conservation concern, but that may be their undoing. In South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, leopards are protected in reserves but are fair game when they leave the park boundaries; it's legal for farmers to trap them or for trophy hunters to shoot them. Both forms of persecution occur at very high levels. As leopard populations become increasingly surrounded by farms and other human expansion, authorities are concerned about the number of leopards which are being killed. Reports of lactating females being hunted and of using baits to draw leopards across park boundaries demand urgent attention. If such practices are common, the future of even protected populations may be in jeopardy.

The Research. Project leader Dr Luke Hunter (Wildlife Conservation Society) is examining this question. Hunter has worked on large cats in KwaZulu-Natal since 1992, establishing methods for reintroducing lions and cheetahs to the region after they became extinct there decades ago. Together with the project's Field Coordinator Guy Balme, he has begun capturing leopards and fitting them with radio collars. Data are being collected on the daily movements of leopards and the risk to animals when they leave reserves. The survival of adults and of cubs will be established to determine how best to protect leopard populations surrounded by 'unsafe' areas. What is the minimum area required for the long-term persistence of a population and if hunting has to occur, how can it best be managed to ensure the species survives?

Dr. Luke Hunter (right) and Carl Walker examine a young female's teeth to determine her age.