July 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Zanzibar has a missing leopard. There is an entire species that has gone astray.

Panthera pardus adesi is or was a species endemic to Zanzibar. Smaller than its mainland relatives the leopard hasn’t been seen by researchers since the mid-90s. According to many zoologists it is extinct; according to the Zanzibar tourism industry it is elusive. They cannot both be right.

There has only been one survey of the Jozani Forest where the leopard is supposed to frequent. Although locals regularly report sightings, finding a leopard in a rainforest is no easy task. Add to this almost no knowledge of its behaviour, no tracks or scat samples to follow and you start to have a very difficult situation indeed. The researchers, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to find any trace of the leopards and abandoned all conservation plans.

The practical problem of finding the animals was not the only obstacle that the researchers faced. There is another issue that has plagued scientists from the very beginning; you see in Zanzibar the leopard is associated with witchcraft.

According to traditional Zanzibari belief leopards are kept by witches and do their evil bidding. This led to a leopard cull in the 1960s, sanctioned by the Revolutionary Government of the time and led by the witch-finder Mzee Kitzani.

The campaign ended in the 1970s but the idea of leopards as ‘dangerous vermin’ remains. Fear of leopards and leopard keepers have added to the difficulties of finding any remaining animals and no new attempts have been made.

For now, the species is “probably extinct” but there is a huge difference between only existing in the pages of a history book and being alive and prowling around Zanzibar. Conservation strategies have always depended on local people for their success this story is a perfect example of how conservationists and local culture can clash.

How do you go about convincing people that the leopard is worth saving when you cannot even find one? How do you go about protecting an animal that officially doesn’t exist?

Image from businessinsider.com