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Local research to help manage trophy hunting

News - Date: 12 February 2015

Written by: News Correspondent / Viewed: 501


Leopards are one of South Africa’s most iconic species, and for many landowners living in Limpopo Province they are part of everyday life.

“Yet leopards are one of the most persecuted large cats in the world, and this year their conservation status is expected to be upgraded from Least Concern to Near Threatened in the Red List of Mammals of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. Due to their elusive nature, however, there is very little information on leopard population numbers and trends. Consequently, management practices and the viability of their commercial use is often poorly informed,” said Ms Katy Williams of the Primate and Predator Project.

To help advise sustainable hunting and management policies for leopards, the South African government reached out to researchers and conservationists for information about leopard populations across Limpopo Province. The Limpopo Leopard Project was created from a partnership between Panthera, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET). Six study sites were set up across the province to monitor leopard numbers, using camera traps.

In 2014, the Primate and Predator Project, led by scientists from Durham University in the United Kingdom and based at Lajuma Research Centre, joined this collaboration and provided a seventh study site in the Soutpansberg Mountains. Each study area is monitored for approximately two months each year over a 10-year period to determine leopard population densities and trends. Data collected by the Limpopo Leopard Project is used to develop sustainable and scientifically grounded approaches to managing trophy hunting. “As a result of this research, the government has implemented a new leopard trophy hunting system, which comes into effect from 2015. Some important features of the new hunting system include the adoption of hunting zones based on estimated leopard density and the implementation of a male-only hunting policy,” said Williams.

As part of this collaboration, the Primate and Predator Project established a 220 km² camera trapping grid which spanned privately owned land on the western end of the Soutpansberg Mountains. For 48 days in 2014, these cameras continually recorded leopard activity. Thirty-eight individual leopards were photographed on 182 occasions. The majority of leopards photographed were females (21). Only six males were photographed and 11 leopards were of unknown sex.

Males have significantly larger ranging patterns than females, which accounts for this discrepancy. By individually identifying leopards, using their unique coat patterns, and monitoring where and when they are recorded on the cameras, preliminary analyses suggest that the leopard population in the western Soutpansberg is over 6 leopards per 100 km².

“The population estimate in the western Soutpansberg is fairly good in comparison to many other areas, so the mountains appear to be very important for leopard conservation. However, this density is lower than previous estimates from this area, with more than 10 leopards per 100 km² reported in 2008. The Primate and Predator Project is exploring whether this may be because leopard numbers are declining or whether it results from a change in the size of the area surveyed between years,” said Williams.

The Primate and Predator Project is extremely grateful to all the landowners who were involved in this important study and allowed us access to their properties. The 2015 survey started on 10 February, thanks to continued support by local landowners.

For more information about this research within the Soutpansberg Mountains, contact Katy Williams by email at email


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Dr Sam Williams, a member of the Primate and Predator Project based at Lajuma Research Centre, busy setting up a camera trap for leopards. Photos: Katy Williams.


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