Recently, the Humane Society and Center for Biological Diversity filed a case against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) regarding African leopards. In 2016, these organizations petitioned the USFWS to list all leopards as endangered and to restrict the import of sport-hunted leopard trophies. The USFWS failed to respond within the timeframe required by the Endangered Species Act. The suit seeks to force the USFWS to respond.
While this petition purportedly aims to “save” leopards from trophy hunters, this type of thinking is wrong for many reasons.
First, the benefits to hunted and non-hunted species, ecosystems, and local communities from international hunting are well documented. Revenues from international hunters justify the conservation of significant habitat, and fund anti-poaching efforts to keep this habitat secure. Employment to local villages, the sharing of hunting fees, and mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts incentivize rural communities to tolerate wildlife, including leopards, which poses a risk to the lives or livelihoods. These tangible benefits explain why range countries, scientists, and the USFWS support regulated hunting as an important part of successful wildlife conservation.
Moreover, the hunting at issue is sustainable—despite misrepresentations in the petition. International hunting of African leopards does not harm their overall survival. Hunting is carefully regulated by range states, with leopards and other species of concern protected by strict laws. Leopard management programs are based on the best science available and adaptive management strategies implemented in cooperation with leading scientists, rural communities, and both photo and hunting tourism operators. Hunting quotas set for leopards and other species are based on research and surveys whenever possible, such as a recent leopard survey in Namibia. African countries have set size limits or age criteria for legally hunted leopards. This, combined with hunter selectivity and the difficulty of finding, tracking, and hunting an appropriate animal, leads to actual offtakes being well below allowed quotas.
In addition to range state harvest regulations and management programs, trade in leopards and many other species is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty which requires that listed species may only be traded when it is not detrimental to their survival in the wild. For many species, range states make non-detriment findings before allowing export of legally hunted animals; for leopards specifically, range states recently made non-detriment findings, which were reviewed and approved by all 183 parties to the CITES treaty, demonstrating the sustainability of legal leopard hunting. Importing countries, like the United States, must also make an independent non-detriment finding before allowing import of hunted leopards.
Finally, the local community perspectives on leopards cannot be ignored. Leopards frequently attack and kill livestock (and sometimes even people), and communities have few methods of protection. International hunters can target problem animals, thus bringing in high revenues and decreasing retaliatory killings. For example, in Zimbabwe over a six-year period, leopard hunts generated almost $500,000 for rural communities and there were zero reported problem animal control offtakes in the communities where these leopards were hunted. From 2010-2015, hunting fees in Zimbabwe from six species, including leopards, exceeded $11 million. Rather than communities forced to choose between a leopard’s life and their own, hunting provides an ethical, sustainable solution with irreplaceable conservation incentives.
While animal rights groups claim to be fighting to save leopards and other species, their proposed shutdown of hunting will exacerbate, rather than solve, biodiversity loss and further threaten the species they claim to protect. SCI will continue to fight for science-based management that is beneficial for both humans and wildlife and stand for the rights of hunters worldwide. For more information, please visit SCI’s International Hunting – Focus on Africa page.
To get involved and to stand with SCI on this issue, please sign our petition to Protect Legal, Regulated Trade in Wildlife.