An African leopard in Namibia

Leopard and Leopard Hunting in Africa. Part I: Threats, Habits, Where and When

by Peter Ruddle

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are the most beautiful, elusive, cunning and challenging animals to hunt. They may be the smallest of the “Big 5” but certainly the most dangerous when wounded. If not wounded, Leopards prefer flight over fight but when wounded are most likely to charge. Leopards are incredibly strong, opportunistic hunters, making them the perfect predator.        

African Leopards don’t have the reputation of devoted man-eaters like their Indian cousins. However Leopards have been known to kill many people in both India and Africa and often come into conflict with humans when killing domestic livestock. As compared to their Indian counterparts, African Leopards are bigger, heavier, sturdier and more robust in build. Their spotted coat is not as dark in color and has more numerous smaller rosettes.   

Historical Distribution of Leopard

Historically, Leopards were widely distributed across most of Africa south of the Sahara and parts of northeast Africa. Their range even extended across parts of Asia Minor, Central Asia into India and China. Today, their range has been reduced by 75% with huntable remnant populations found in Southern, Central and East Africa.

Threats

The biggest challenges faced by Leopards in their bid for survival is habitat destruction, poaching and an increasing human footprint which creates an ever increasing human wildlife conflict. Even with all the good intentions of the IUCN agreements that are in place these animals are reported to be declining and the challenge for the hunting fraternity is to prove the authorities wrong on this issue. But due to the lack of Leopard population census data, some countries like South Africa are finding it difficult to counteract the claim that Leopard numbers are on the decrease.   

Although Leopard census data is extremely difficult to collect, numerous photo trapping projects with trail cameras are being conducted in numerous African countries. This entails photographic images, best taken from both sides of the animal at the same time to be able to identify the animals from the rosette patterns and whisker spots along a Leopard’s lips. The collection of this information is used the same way as a national fingerprint database system. Each individual animal can be identified by its spots. This is scientifically acceptable data which will be used to prove a point and hopefully secure future Leopard hunting quotas.       

Fragmentation of natural habitats due to various types of farming practises (beef and sheep farming) and land claimed properties in South Africa where communities are resettled destroy the free movement of wildlife in these areas bringing humans and wildlife into conflict.

A beautiful male leopard

Large conservancies where numerous landowners pool their land together for wildlife can secure the future of Leopards on private land in countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Unfortunately those with other farming interests such as cattle, sheep and even wildlife breeding are often responsible for killing Leopards to protect their business interests.  

These damage-causing Leopards can be very difficult to hunt as this constant threat of persecution can alter their behaviour and may ultimately impact on the success of your hunt. Some countries allow these problem animals to be hunted which can offset the losses experienced by these farmers and communities. A portion, if not all of the trophy fee is used to compensate or even buy the hunting rights for this particular problem species. Unfortunately, in South Africa problem species cannot be sold as a trophy hunt and the consequences can end up being quite dire for the Leopards. Gin traps and poison used by indiscriminate landowners are often used as a preventative method to kill these animals. Being such a non-selective control method often numerous other species and birds are trapped or poisoned during this process. 

Likewise, poachers use similar methods to trap and kill Leopards. Professional hunters often have the unenviable task of destroying maimed and wounded Leopards caught in snares. The illegal Leopard skin trade is huge in Southern Africa as members of the Zulu Royal family, leaders and congregation members of the Shembe church use these skins as traditional and church going dress. Efforts are being made to address the situation by asking members from the church to buy artificially manufactured Leopard skin products.

Just how bad the poaching is depends on the money, time and effort made to secure private land and hunting concessions owned and operated by outfitters throughout Africa. Some have the support of fundraising trusts, hunting organisations and hunters dollars to secure these areas. As hunters we are all well aware of the criticism we receive from the uninformed public but outfitters try their level best to conserve not only Leopards but all species within their territories.  

Just how bad is Leopard poaching? One poacher was arrested in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa in possession of 124 Leopard skins of which the majority were poached in neighbouring Mozambique according to the DNA samples taken from the skins.

Leopard Habits

Both males and females hold down a territory with a male’s territory overlapping numerous female territories. They are mostly nocturnal but like many animals are active on overcast days, at dawn and dusk. Leopards are found in numerous habitat types from rainforest to semi-arid deserts. In the bushveld they prefer riverine areas but probably most at home in broken rocky mountainous country. This adaptable and secretive animal can even survive on the outskirts of cities where they are known to kill dogs and cats to survive. 

Tracks of a leopard

Leopards are efficient opportunistic hunters feeding on prey from the size of rats and mice to medium size antelope. They are known for their great strength in hoisting their prey into trees to avoid being harassed by Lions and Hyenas when feeding.

Leopards are water independent creatures being able to survive from the liquid intake from the animals they kill but if water is available they will regularly enjoy a good drink.

Where to Hunt Leopard

Leopards may be hunted in the following countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania. Leopards may also be hunted in the Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda and Ethiopia but the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USF&WS) will not permit the importation of these animals into the USA. 

Leopards are listed as vulnerable by the the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and are a CITES 1 animal, so hunting quota offtakes are strictly allocated according to population numbers for the respective countries where they may be hunted. South Africa has temporarily suspended Leopard hunting but does issue a limited quota from time to time. Hunters must always double check their country’s trophy import regulations as it differs around the world and printed information in this regard may be outdated.  

Leopard hunting regulations also vary from country to country. Some allow hunting over bait at night while others only permit daylight hunting in the presence of a wildlife official. Hunting daylight hours are defined as half an hour after sunset and half an hour before sunrise.  

Even within a country different rules may apply as per the areas that may and may not be hunted with hounds if hunting with dogs is even permitted.  Only fully mature males should be hunted and in many countries hunters will be fined for shooting a female and have their trophy confiscated.  

Summary of Hunting Regulations

Country Hunt at Night Hunt with Hounds Export to the USA
Botswana No No Yes
CAR No No No
Ethiopia No No No
Mozambique Yes Yes Yes
Namibia No No Yes
South Africa Yes No Yes
Tanzania No No Yes
Uganda No No No
Zambia No No Yes
Zimbabwe No Yes Yes

Qualifying Measurements 

The qualifying measurements for the record books are:

African Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Safari Club International Record Book Rowland Ward Record Book
Archery Min. Rifle Min. Record Measuring Method Minimum Record Measuring Method
  14″ 19 11/16″ 15 15 4/16″ 19″ 18

A big African leopard came to a bait

Best Season to Hunt Leopard

Professional hunters all have their own theories and ideas as to when it is best to hunt a Leopard, some have even written dedicated hunting books on the subject. Here are some of those hypotheses.

Summer vs Winter Months

  • Leopards are not as active and become quite lazy when the night temperatures are high as experienced during the summer months. They also tend to only start their night patrols later in the night when things have cooled down a little.
  • Most places also receive summer rains so you may be washed out while sitting in a blind or the fresh tracks may be obliterated by the rain and many concessions are actually closed during the summer months.
  • Mosquitoes, flies and other biting insects are a constant pest in summer in many locations.
  • Your baits will rot and deteriorate very quickly from the heat during the summer months even though this is not much of a deterrent for most Leopards. 
  • Hunting conditions for the Leopards may be more difficult in summer as the animal populations may not be concentrated around water holes as is the case in the drier winter months. However, most antelope’s give birth in spring and summer making for easy pickings and a Leopard with a full belly is unlikely to be attracted to a bait.

Full Moon vs New Moon

  • Many professional hunters prefer to hunt Leopard during the dark moon phase as Leopards are supposed to find hunting more difficult during this phase and therefore more likely to be attracted to a bait.
  • Full moon or a growing moon phase gives better natural lighting to work with, especially for those hunting at night. This ensures better visibility when using night vision or even good optics to sex and age a cat while feeding on a bait.

Winter is undoubtedly therefore the best hunting period for a classic baited Leopard hunt and probably best in late winter unless the area is experiencing a drought. Then dead and dying (weak) animals are likely to be found everywhere, which will affect the effect of a bait.

These factors all determine the reasons why most outfitters sell 14 day Leopard hunts to improve the client’s chances of a successful hunt. An outfitters success rate is often questioned by potential clients looking to book a hunt. Good areas to hunt Leopards is determined by suitable habitat and food availability. Both factors are likely to influence Leopard population densities.

Now, hunters might understand why patience and luck to a certain extent play an important role in these hunts. So many factors are beyond the control of the outfitter.   

A leopard and a rifle in Africa

No Such Thing as a “Canned” Leopard Hunt 

Leopard breeding has not taken off in South Africa as in the case of Lions.  The main reason for this is the fact that it is just about impossible to contain a Leopard with any type of fencing. Most game ranches try to ensure their fencing is effective enough to keep Leopards out of their antelope breeding projects, but these attempts often fail to stop the strong, agile, and cunning predator. No economically viable human structure, like game fencing can prevent a Leopard from moving freely throughout their territory.  

Leopard proof fencing usually includes a number of different methods of electric fencing with offset brackets, offset perimeter fencing, live wires close to the ground to prevent digging and overhangs. In most instances the expense of such a fence is not worth the cost when there are no guarantees that you will even be issued a Leopard hunting license (tag) to make any returns on your capital investment. Therefore, all Leopard hunting is classified as free-roaming even when the hunt takes place on a high fence game ranch. 

CONTINE TO PART II: Hunting Tips

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