By Jean Dunn

Contributing Editors: Ashwell Glasson, Melissa Baird

Hunted to Extinction:

A Flawed Legal System Wreaks Havoc on the Leopard and other Endangered Species

During the massive public outcry that occurred in the aftermath of Cecil the Lion’s death, it became clear just how many of you are out there who care about animals and hate to see them suffer such cruelty. But the hunting of animals that should be protected is nothing new; it happens every day, all over the world, and especially in South Africa where the Big Five roam. Most of these animals do not have names. They might not be as majestic as Cecil, or remind you of a live-action Lion King either. Instead, their suffering is going unnoticed. They are out there this very moment being stalked by the world’s most dangerous predator—man.

People often say that this hunting is economically beneficial, or that it contributes to and promotes conservation practices “when it is done right.” But in regards to several endangered species, we are now finding out just how easy it is for it to go wrong. Take the leopard, for example, another big cat. This fascinating species is getting closer and closer to extinction, and yet it is still legally permitted for the cat to be hunted down and its spotted trophies exported in horrifying and unsustainable numbers.

While I personally cannot condone taking the life of a leopard or any other animal for the “thrill” of the hunt or for a magnificent trophy, I understand this is a topic of heated debate and I do not intend for this article to serve as a platform for that. Instead, I would like us to set aside our differences in opinion for a moment and take a look at the real issue at hand: the fact that we are not hunting for conservation; that we may be wiping out a species by simply not making an effort to monitor its population, properly manage its trade, or enforce the law. If wildlife hunting is going to remain legal, the least we can do is ensure that it is actually “done right,” so that these iconic creatures do not wind up confined to the pages of history books.

A leopard rests in a tree in Kruger National Park. Photo by: Tom Dooley

A leopard rests in a tree in Kruger National Park. Photo by: Tom Dooley.

The Current State of “Conservation”

Year after year, we are becoming increasingly aware of humankind’s massive impact on nature—the continuous changes in climate and environment, and the widespread loss of species, some of which existed long before us. Fortunately for the future of this planet, there are some who are taking action. Environmental and wildlife organisations have been created and meaningful legislation has been passed in order to help combat these issues. But is everyone following through? Recent evidence suggests they are not. Specifically in regards to this hunting and exportation of endangered wildlife, we are currently driving species towards extinction out of pure laziness—laziness in observation, in management, and in enforcing the necessary regulations meant to protect and sustain these species for the long-term. This demands change.

CITES and How it Works

Over 35,000 plant and animal species (species of concern and of non-concern) are currently listed in a document called CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES is, in simplest terms, an international agreement between governments aimed at protecting species. States, or “Parties,” which have joined CITES adopt and adhere to its framework voluntarily in combination with their own national laws and domestic legislation. In its entirety, the Convention is meant to ensure that the ongoing trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. This past July, the European Union became an official party to CITES and its goal to ensure that trade remains legal and sustainable. This is a positive sign for managing, implementing, and regulating proactive wildlife trade in Europe.

In South Africa, the Scientific Authority, a body administered by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, regulates the trade of CITES-listed species. One of the ways they accomplish this is through creating and publishing scientific reviews regarding whether or not trade endangers a species. These reviews are furthermore referred to as “non-detriment findings” (NDFs). This process is part of the commitment that a CITES party must undertake in order to assess and inform wildlife trade and its viability and impacts on species. The most recent NDF, published in May 2015 by the Department of Environmental Affairs, is a topic of major alarm and distress for conservationists and animal-lovers alike.

CITES Exposed

CITES recognizes that, “Levels of exploitation of some animal and plant species are high and the trade in them, together with other factors, such as habitat loss, is capable of heavily depleting their populations and even bringing some species close to extinction.” In theory, having CITES in place should therefore be extremely beneficial to our environment and wildlife populations. According to its own mission statement, CITES should be helping to prevent humans from causing serious damage to ecosystems and eradicating various species for their own pleasure or economic gains. The issue is—this is not happening. In the case of many of the CITES-listed species, as revealed by this latest NDF, trade quotas (the number of specimens of a species that can be traded and exported per year) are being issued without proper scientific data or substantial information to back them up. The consequences of this could be disastrous. Especially with species that are already threatened or endangered, these flawed and arbitrary numbers amidst an already flawed and poorly regulated system could be putting many on a path straight towards imminent destruction. This is particularly true in the case of the leopard, a species very close to my own heart.

A Cape mountain leopard on the prowl. Photo via The Cape Leopard Trust.

A Cape mountain leopard on the prowl. Photo by: The Cape Leopard Trust.

Non-Detriment Findings for the CITES-listed Leopard

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is listed on Appendix I of CITES, meaning that it is considered to be a species threatened with extinction and may be negatively affected by trade. Trade in leopards and their parts are therefore to be permitted only in “exceptional” circumstances. This new NDF provides more than several reasons as to why this should be the case.

Although it has proved to be a relatively resilient species, the leopard, like most plants and animals, is still susceptible to human disturbance and has now been wiped out from at least 37% of its African range. Their current threats include, but are not limited to, habitat loss, excessive off-takes (legal and illegal) of presumed damage-causing-animals (DCAs), poorly managed trophy hunting, the illegal trade of leopard skins for cultural and religious attire, and incidental snaring. Leopard populations are especially at risk with trophy hunting due to there being no restrictions on the sex, age, or size of leopards that can be hunted. In fact, South Africa is the only country permitted by CITES to export leopard trophies that actually allows the hunting of female leopards. This is particularly disturbing. Research has shown that leopards may be resilient to human disturbance only if there are healthy females that are still able to reproduce. A population viability analysis conducted for the South African leopard population also concluded that the risk of extinction almost doubled when females were on the trade quota. The hunting of female leopards carries the additional risk of her cub(s)’s death(s) as well, as cubs are not likely to survive after their mother is killed or taken from them. This is just the tip of the iceberg of concerns that this new scientific review addresses in its summary.

Hunted While Facing Extinction

Regardless of all of these negative facts, South Africa is still permitted under CITES to export 150 leopard trophies annually. The NDF explicitly states that this number was arrived at based on speculative population estimates and an analysis of data that was extremely poor. It even acknowledges that, “There is no rigorous estimate for the size of the South African leopard population, nor reliable estimates of leopard population trends at national or provincial scales.” Some of the key role-players in the allocation of these CITES export permits and hunting activities are the provincial conservation authorities (e.g. CapeNature, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife). I find it extremely unusual that a group of intelligent individuals such as this was able to decide how many leopards it is safe to hunt while having little to no knowledge of just how many leopards are left in their increasingly fragmented habitat.

It is also important to note that this export number refers only to the permitted and documented exportation of the animal. According to the NDF, legal trophy hunting and DCA control are poorly managed and rarely properly documented. Illegal forms of harvest are frequent and are obviously unregulated and unmonitored. The limited data that does exist suggests that the levels of illegal hunting and export of leopards exceed the levels of that which is legal, making it even more difficult to access reliable records and monitor the true effects of trade on leopard populations. When we consider all of this illegal harvesting that takes place and the weak regulation in the provinces, the number of leopards exported could reach well into the thousands. This begs the question, are we making informed evidence-based decisions on leopard off-take? This NDF suggests otherwise…a real concern for many of us.

The NDF goes on to conclude, “The legal local and international trade in live animals and the export of hunting trophies at present poses a high risk to the survival of this species in South Africa.” In some areas such as Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, the review states that trophy hunting is proving it may not be sustainable at all. Instead, excessive quotas, over-hunting of the same areas, poor trophy selection, DCA control, and other illegal activities have been extremely detrimental. How are we then, in good conscience, still permitting the widespread killing of leopards when we are clearly being shown that it is likely doing far more harm than good?

The Cederberg Leopard and Caracal Projects checked two remote cameras in Klipbok Kloof. They were rewarded with a great image of this male leopard, "Titus." Photo by: The Cape Leopard Trust.

The Cederberg Leopard and Caracal Projects checked two remote cameras in Klipbok Kloof. They were rewarded with a great image of this male leopard, “Titus.” Photo by: The Cape Leopard Trust.

Time for a Change

For CITES to actually do what it aims to do and protect species, we need to develop a coordinated national strategy that can provide standardized guidelines to all provinces for the management of leopards and other species that are at risk. This will enable us to have reliable, scientific data that can lead to more accurate and sustainable quotas. It will also ensure that all legal policies and recommended guidelines are adhered to so that species may still thrive amidst human disturbances.

The work of conservation organisations like the Cape Leopard Trust and Panthera, such as the ongoing monitoring of leopards with camera trap data and seeking faux alternatives to leopard skins and trophies, may also be replicated throughout the provinces to help ensure this species’ long-term survival. These are programs of constant action; for it is constant observing, constant amending, constant educating and engaging that is going to save species in the long run.

How You Can Help

The NDF makes more than several references to a lack of data, poor management, poor documentation, and unregulated practices involving the hunting and exportation of the leopard. If we, as both citizens and as concerned stewards of the earth, can urge the government on local and national levels to address these issues, we may have a fighting chance at keeping these magnificent creatures alive and roaming freely in our wild lands.

I therefore implore you to take action. Become a “citizen scientist” for the Animal Demography Unit and help to map leopard distributions through their MammalMAP project to ensure that there is reliable data out there for these quotas. Or, if you want to learn more, follow organisations like the Cape Leopard Trust, Panthera, Conservation Action Trust, and the Animal Demography Unit, who are all actively working to positively influence the leopard hunting quota issues as well as broaden our understanding of South Africa’s amazing large predators, like leopards. But they cannot do it alone. Without your help, it is unlikely that we will have a strong enough force to create change and move forward into a brighter future.

You once demanded justice for the illegal hunt of a protected lion, now you have a chance to demand justice for these leopards. But, more importantly, you have a chance to become a voice for all of these threatened or endangered animals that cannot advocate for themselves. We need this voice to make a difference. With your support, we get one step closer to fixing a flawed system and ensuring that these incredible creatures still have a future alongside us. So act now, support these organizations, and make your voice heard.


For all citizen scientist inquiries, please contact Ashwell Glasson, Chairperson of the Animal Demography Unit:


Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. (1973). Washington, D.C.

Molewa, B. E. (2015). Government Gazette (pp. 12-15) (South Africa, Department of Environmental Affairs).