Leopard study reveals staggering fact about wildlife trade body CITES

A leopard lying down in vegetation
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The global wildlife trading body urgently needs to review the assessments it uses to set leopard trophy hunting quotas, according to a recent study. The review is necessary to help stem the species’ decline.

This body is known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Remarkably, the paper highlighted that the assessments CITES uses to “manage” leopard quotas date back to the 80s.

The interlinked environmental crises – climate, biodiversity, pollution, and ocean – reveal that nature is neither static nor short of surprises. This is evident in newly-recognised threats to gigantic ice sheets and mass species migrations that can astonish even scientists. So it’s imperative that policymakers base their decision-making on information that’s as up-to-date as possible.

Three human-led threats to leopard numbers

The study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, looked into factors which affect leopard populations in Zimbabwe’s part of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Its authors include individuals from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

It investigated both environmental and human “drivers” of the species’ density in surveys across 16 different sites. These included areas where trophy hunting was impermissible, such as national parks. Other sites were forests and hunting areas where trophy hunting occurred.

The surveys found that leopard populations are now “considerably lower than previous estimates” indicated. They also suggested that there are four key factors that can negatively impact leopard populations. Three of these relate to human activity: they are habitat modification, trophy hunting, and poaching.

The fourth driver was the presence of lions over a certain density. But the study highlighted that the “competitive interactions” between the two species “are not well understood”, with other studies showing “positive associations” between them.

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CITES: Humans don’t affect leopards

In light of their findings, the researchers called for a review of the assessments CITES currently uses to determine leopard trophy hunting quotas. The authors pointed out that these assessments date back to 1988.

The assessments assume that the type of vegetation and rainfall determine leopard numbers. And they assert that human activities in “unmodified habitat” don’t affect leopard numbers. Such activities include trophy hunting and poaching.

On the contrary, the researchers argue that their findings suggest:

leopard populations may be less resilient in the face of human exploitation than has previously been assumed and populations may be depleted in hunting areas relative to areas that are more intensively protected.

The researchers added that both national and international authorities need to urgently revisit how they manage leopard populations.

CITES is at odds with its own principles

As The Canary has previously reported, CITES is a global agreement between most states – known as parties – on international wildlife trading. Its primary purpose is meant to be ensuring that trade doesn’t drive species to extinction.

Wildlife journalist and author Dr Adam Cruise has asserted, however, that in practice CITES is:

not a conservation organisation per se but a trade organisation in that it encourages the sustainable commercial utilisation of species as a means to preserve them for continued commercial utilisation.

But even on its own terms, it is effectively failing in the case of leopards. This is because the ‘use’ of leopards it’s currently permitting doesn’t appear to be sustainable, and it’s therefore unlikely to preserve them for future ‘use’.

A 2020 study about leopards raised this issue too. It involved some of the same authors as the recent paper, namely WildCRU’s Andrew Loveridge and David McDonald. The paper stated that for decades:

The way in which the CITES leopard quota regime has been operating is fundamentally at odds with the principles of sustainable use, precaution and adaptive management.

Is sustainable use past its sell by date?

Others, such as Cruise, have questioned whether sustainable use, particularly in relation to trophy hunting, is a doctrine that is itself past its sell by date. Simply put, sustainable use means constricting use of the world’s species to levels that don’t threaten their existence. 

The journalist embarked on two elephant-focused investigations in recent years to put the doctrine to the test. In 2021, he carried out a two-month-long probe in Namibia with fellow journalist Izzy Sasada. Namibia is arguably the poster child for sustainable use. Then in 2022, Cruise released findings of a further month-long investigation into Botswana’s sustainable use policies.

In both cases, Cruise reported that such utilisation was damaging wildlife populations. He also found that the policies didn’t sufficiently help communities either, who ostensibly should financially benefit from such wildlife use.

As the Daily Maverick highlighted, in the case of Botswana, Cruise reported that:

this investigation shows that trophy hunting continues to impoverish local communities, causes the decline in species and heightens human-elephant conflict situations.

Trade – not species – comes out on top

Officials from Namibia and Botswana pushed back against the investigations, similarly arguing that Cruise had an axe to grind against trophy hunting.

However, the leopard studies provide an example of how CITES itself is even failing to make sure that the use of wildlife it greenlights is sustainable. The studies indicate that the main beneficiary of CITES’ outdated quota-setting is the leopard trade, rather than leopards themselves. This trend is echoed in other controversies involving the international body.

CITES’ governing bodies, including parties, should be reminded ahead of its next major conference in November that the promotion of trade isn’t the convention’s primary function. The global community set up CITES to safeguard species’ survival in the face of excessive international trade. It’s about time it started acting like it.

Featured image via Axel Tschentscher / Wikimedia, cropped to 770×403, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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  • Show Comments
    1. CITES is still the best thing that animals have got, and the whole world except you animal rights fundamentalists knows and understands it, Tracy
      While you are entitled to believe whatever you want, the fact remains that the whole concept of animal rights is a folly – nature doesn’t do rights, animals don’t give each other rights, and animal rights don’t exist in nature. Animal rights are human ideas right up there with beliefs that the world is flat and the royal family are lizards from space. Nature doesn’t care.
      So, if you then start by believing animals have rights, you start on the wrong foot and listen to Adam Cruise and Dom Pinnock, the chuckle brothers of conservation and field management of wild animals. Izzy Sasada wouldn’t know an aardvark from an antelope. Like you, they make a living writing for their foreign animal-loving audience who, well-fed and safe in their armchairs, unsurprisingly hate hunting. Put a leopard in your garden, eating your pet dog, and suddenly you all won’t be so pious. Still, you are entitled to make a living provided you don’t interfere with the adults.
      Outside of the national reserves, nobody wants leopards hanging about – they are widely hated and mistrusted because they kill watch dogs and small stock, so most of them disappear fro farms due to the 3S – Shoot, shovel and shut up. Plenty get killed off-permit for tribal regalia. I know – I used to trade their skins in bales many years ago.
      It follows that the only thing keeping modern leopards alive outside reserves is if people value them in cash terms – eco-tourists never see them outside reserves. The only cash value is provided by trophy hunters – if people think they can sell them to hunters, they won’t kill them on sight or poison them.

      So, if hunting gives them a value, CITES can control the legal part of the numbers through imports and exports. They have authorised 150 leopard trophies this year for South Africa, for example, in a population estimated between 2 and 11 thousand (they are devilishly difficult to count). However, the South African government has only allowed a total of ten trophies this year, all adult male leopards in areas where they are seen to be abundant. So you see, trophy hunting of leopards is very closely watched.

      Tut tutting from the sidelines won’t help leopards, Tracy. Being nasty about CITES won’t help. There are already moves to prevent leopard skins being used in regalia, so stopping trophy hunting won’t help leopards – without trophy hunting, they will become simple, worthless agricultural pests. Then they will REALLY be in trouble.

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