The 'Big Three' Global Perils

Igor Khorozyan studied Caucasian Leopards in Armenia's Khosrov Reserve in the 1990s.
His article "Leopard (Panthera pardus ciscaucasica) in Armenia: basic trends, dangers and hopes" was published in 1998, of which excerpts are presented here. Although Igor feels that his insights are outdated, I would not like to withhold them.

Recently, Cavallo propounded the idea that Leopards indirectly accelerated the rates of human evolution as prehistoric ancestors of Homo sapiens readily fed on the remnants of Leopards' meals and 'sponged' on the carnivores. Nonetheless, man has pursued Leopards in fear of their strength, greed, audacity, sly behaviour, and for their marvellous coat.

Now, in most places, P. pardus is threatened with extinction and is recognized worldwide as an endangered species. According to IUCN experts, the definition of 'endangered' is a 'taxa in danger of extinction and whose survival is unlikely if the causal factors continue operating'. So, what perils or 'causal factors' threaten today's Leopards? They are three: (1) illegal trade of Leopard skin; (2) sport hunting; and (3) extermination by shepherds and farmers.

Data [as reported by CITES in 1990] show the negligible role of Africa in the global cat skin export/import balance - 0.8% and 0.3% respectively. In contrast, Asia (mainly China) makes up 48.4% of global exports [21,700 skins] and 72.1% of global imports (with Japan dominating [31,218 skins]). The information provided should not be considered as reflecting only lawful trade operations. For instance, the Republic of Korea and Greece are ranked as quite significant importers of the cat skins with 2.4% and 3.4% of global imports respectively, and being non-members of CITES can be involved in illegal trade of rare and endangered feline species and products, e.g. Leopard skin coats. The situation has been greatly aggravated by the fact that about 30% of African and Asian countries belong to the CITES non-member alliance and data on the cat skin trade in most of them are not available, so it is reasonable to speculate that there are a considerable number of Leopard coats smuggled out of these countries.

In the current debate over sustainable use of wildlife one of the best funded and organised campaigns is that being waged to defend and promote sport hunting - even that of rare and endangered species. Perhaps the most avid organization involved in this campaign is Safari Club International (SCI), which lobbies on behalf of big game hunters in Africa and Asia. Its attitudes towards endangered wildlife were demonstrated in August 1978, when the SCI applied to the US Interior Department for a permit to allow its members to kill and import to the United States each year some 1125 animals, including 150 African Leopards. While protests from conservation groups and the public forced this permit application to be withdrawn, pressure by the SCI and other hunting groups caused the Interior Department, a couple of years later, to downgrade the status of the African Leopard from 'endangered' to 'threatened' in order to make it a target for limited hunting (but who is obliged to keep such control?).

And, finally, the third and probably most large-scale and obvious peril to the Leopard is its inclination to kill domestic animals, especially dogs and livestock, if common food resources become scarce. In India's tropical forest, for example, Leopards of mean weight [of] 45 kg have constant opportunity to feed on relatively large ungulates with no need to attack cattle. In turn the diet of Leopards inhabiting the barren Judean desert in southern Israel is enriched with small animals, such as hare, cavy, rodents, fox, jackal, wild cat, partridge, chukar and passerine. Hungry Leopards do not even disdain vegetarian food. In the Tai National Park (Côte d'Ivoire), 7% of faecal samples contained residues of two grasses, which are supposed to be eaten selectively to mitigate the feeling of hunger.

Doubtless, Leopards cannot always cope with prey scarcity by eating the bulk of their diet as grass. They are forced to become bolder and risk being shot while hunting dogs, goats, sheep, donkeys and buffalo calves.

A representative situation is recorded in the southwestern part of the Kopetdag ridge in Turkmenistan. Originally, local Leopards fed mainly on moufflons, which were hunted to extermination by humans as they were seen as competitors of livestock. Thus the carnivores were driven to hunt wild boars. From mid-October to mid-May, however, rutting boars become aggressive, oust immature and senile individuals away from the herd and form new kinship groups, thus decreasing their availability to hunting Leopards. In this period, predators have to feed on livestock and become exposed to illegal hunting: 28.9% of the Leopard's diet is made up of sheep and goats and 10.6% equally of cattle and horses.