What does a Karate Class for 5 year olds and saving Africa’s leopards have in common? Luke Hunter speaks at the Explorers Club on Leopard Conservation.


Tamboti Female, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

Evan and I created our own adventure when we decided to make a trip into Manhattan to hear Dr. Luke Hunter, the President of Panthera, speak at the Explorers Club on Thursday evening, October 17, 2013.  Driving into NYC never is as easy as it should be, given that we live a mere 60 miles from Midtown.  Road closures, accidents and construction, in any combination and in multiple combinations, make for added challenges and the need to adapt to anything and everything thrown at you.  I was excited that we had carved out some time to watch our buddies, “the Twins” at their 4:30 karate class prior to the 6pm Explorers Club event.  I thought our attendance would be a nice surprise for the boys and would create a little momentary peace for us in the midst of the City’s chaos.  Well, even Karate Class had something to throw at us that day.  The teacher opened the class with the suggestion that the young “Grasshoppers” invite their friends in the audience, previously known as the “Observers”, to join the class.  The boys came running over to us with huge expectant smiles on their faces – there was only one possible answer to their request – participate (!) – which on that day was a version of “Insanity 60” for five year olds, combined with some World Wide Wrestling Federation moves…  The boys were primed to take us down.  We found ourselves lying flat on our backs, feet to feet with our “opponent”.  The room was silent, the tension in the air, electric.  At the word “GO” we jumped to our knees, grabbed our opponents’ shoulders and made every attempt to wrestle him to the ground where, if we held him in that position for 3 seconds, we would be deemed the winner.  The boys, filled with a child’s unerring belief that anything is possible, combined with an absolute intention to succeed, took us on, and down!  Needless to say, we arrived at the Explorer’s Club a bit worse for wear – given that we had just completed 30 minutes of an “Insanity” and “Smackdown” program in our dinner clothes…

From karate class, we moved uptown to the tree-lined streets of the Upper East Side and home of the Explorers Club where Dr. Hunter was the guest speaker on the topic, “The Leopard in Africa: Conserving the World’s Most Persecuted Big Cat”.  Luke presented the audience with a question – do leopards need conservation?  When the fact is shared that they have lost over 40% of their African range, the answer is a resounding, Yes!

Bicycle Crossing Male, Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Bicycle Crossing Male, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

Luke referenced the 2005 study by Ray, Hunter & Zigouris, called “Setting Conservation and Research Priorities for Larger African Carnivores”.  Leopards, despite being one of the more adaptable of the big cats, are contending with four major threats: (1) Loss of Habitat (the greater the number of humans, the greater the potential for human/cat conflict and ultimately the loss of range), (2) Loss of Prey (the “Empty Forest Syndrome” – again, more human interference, in this case prey numbers decline within a declining range, (3) Illegal Killing and (4) Legal Hunting.  Hmm, I’m no scientist, but do you see the common thread winding its way through these immediate threats?

Now any reasonable person will also appreciate the villager/farmers’ perspective on the potential scenario at hand.  If a farmer suddenly finds that his prized goat or cow is dead, presumably at the jaws of the leopard found nibbling at the scene, that the cat might be deemed the source of the problem.  And sometimes it is the leopard, and sometimes, it’s not.  When you rush to judgment and immediately kill the leopard, you don’t necessarily get to the truth.

And then there is the debate on legal hunting… Luke was quick to point out that he, personally, is against hunting, but he posed a very compelling question.  If you abolish hunting and the substantial income that it brings into these impoverished areas – what do you replace it with?  It needs to be something that monetarily contributes at least what the hunting licenses previously provided.  The quick answer is perhaps high-end, eco-friendly safari camps where customers can “shoot” big cats over and over again, with a telephoto lens, rather than a rifle.  But not all current hunting areas are conducive to this transformation.  Botswana just recently outlawed trophy hunting in the country.   If there is one country where this has the potential to be successful, it is probably Botswana because it has an active and well-established network of eco-friendly safari camp projects in place.  Only time will tell how this plays out and we watch with intense interest and hope.

Leopard on a Limb, Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Leopard on a Limb, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

I was really amazed by the number of legal trophy hunting license quotas that were allowed by a couple of countries in particular: Tanzania (500), Zimbabwe (500), Ethiopia (500), and Namibia (250), to name a few. But what the scientific and conservation community is now debating is that trophy hunting may be the lesser of two evils…  If hunting is abolished, the land might be turned over to farming – not a viable alternative, if the ultimate goal is greater and improved cat conservation.

Tamboti Leopard Logging It, Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Tamboti Leopard Logging It, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

Luke took us through a series of slides summarizing a leopard study done at the Phinda-Mkhuze ecosystem in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa during the period 2002 to 2009.  The question the researchers posed was “What are the effects of anthropogenic activities on leopards?”.  They were interested in checking out survival & reproduction, as well as density.  And , just to be clear for those less scientifically inclined or who missed taking Latin in high school, anthropogenic means “caused or produced by humans”.

There are a number of interesting points that need to be factored into the equation of this study.   The two reserves share a common border.  Phinda is a private game reserve lying just south of Mkhuze, a state owned game reserve.  Phinda is also located on the “edge” of a large human and herd animal population, while Mkhuze is better protected given its more isolated surroundings, so it considered to have a “core”.   The animals at the two reserves were monitored with GPS and VHF telemetry as well as camera traps.  The baseline study showed that the mortality rate of Phinda leopards was at a ratio of 3:1 as compared to those in Mkhuze, despite the fact that Phinda was the private reserve.  The ratio was the same for deaths caused by humans as well as for natural deaths.

Luke went on to point out that more deaths, leads to an elevated turnover in males, which can lead to (1) increased infanticide and (2) reduced reproductive rates among females.  Like the male lion who takes over a pride and kills off the young offspring of his predecessor, leopards are also territorial and the triumphant male leopard will also kill off leopard cubs he has not sired.  This behavior also leads to uncertainty amongst young females of reproductive age who will delay having their first litter until they feel that there is some stability in the male hierarchy of the territory.  The 2002 leopard baseline study showed higher mortality and lower reproductive output was resulting in a population decline.

Hangin out at Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Hangin out at Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

So here is where things get interesting and inspiring.  What kind of conservation interventions affected positive change?  With regard to trophy hunting – the arbitrary quota of ten leopards per year in KwaZulu-Natal which included uneven quota distributions and permitted the hunting of females was changed to include the more even distribution of CITES tags across the province with the likelihood of obtaining a tag dependent on the size of the property where the hunt would take place.  Importantly, it also restricted trophy hunting to adult males, since fewer males are required to maintain the same levels of reproduction and you avoid dependent cubs dying as the result of their mother being shot.  With regard to human/leopard conflict, permits were no longer rewarded automatically for the depredation of wild prey; rather, any kill needed to be inspected within 24 hours so that there would be a thoughtful evaluation of the responsible species and the identification of the true culprit.  The addition of a “three strikes” rule also eliminated a rush to judgment and the killing of innocent leopards.

So when the scientific team went back to review the effects of these interventions by remeasuring the leopard densities – what did they find?  Leopard densities in the Phinda Game Reserve continued to increase such that by 2009 the leopards per 100 square kilometers were similar (actually slightly higher but statistically pretty similar, to what the baseline study found in 2005. Specifically, in 2005 the study found there were 11.11 leopards per 100 square Km’s in Mkhuze vs. 7.17 leopards in Phinda.  In 2007 the number was 10.76 in Mkhuze vs. 9.42 in Phinda and in 2009 the population density was 10.7 leopards in Mkhuze vs. 11.21 in Phinda (all based on per 100 square kilometers).  These very pragmatic solutions made a real difference towards improved leopard conservation.

Mama "Van Gogh", Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Mama “Van Gogh”, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

Luke finished his presentation talking about an incredibly innovative solution that Panthera has put into motion on behalf of African leopard conservation – the creation of faux leopard capes worn by the ever-growing male population of the Shembe religion.  Many Zulu community members practice the Shembe religion which was founded by Isaiah Shembe in 1910 and is a combination of Christianity and Zula traditions and is also known as the Nazareth Baptist Church.  Male Shembe elders wear leopard skins in their ceremonies, and with an estimated 2 million male followers and a total following that could number 5 to 11 million believers, this adds up to too many leopards losing their lives to become a cape.  Panthera took their plan to China where they worked with a company to design and manufacture faux leopard “skins”.  The faux skins are then transported back to South Africa (free of charge by DHL) where they are sewn by traditional Shembe tailors into the religious capes (ie., the Shembe tailors are not losing out to cheap Chinese labor).  And what a deal!  The traditional leopard cape can cost anywhere from $350 to $600.  The faux cape, still sewn by the Shembe tailor, costs about $16.  While the discerning eye can definitely tell the difference, the faux capes are catching on and Panthera expects to have about 4500 in circulation by year-end 2013.  There is still work to be done but this is where thinking outside the box makes a real difference.

Tamboti Stretch, Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Tamboti Stretch, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

So what does African Leopard Conservation and Karate for five year-olds have in common?  What I took away from the day is that anything is possible if you believe in yourself and your cause AND are smart about how you approach a situation.  The twins didn’t throw up their hands when given the opportunity to wrestle grown-ups.  They took the opportunity on with passion and a belief that anything is possible.  Panthera is doing the same thing with the Big Cats – they are being smart, thoughtful, innovative and tireless in their pursuit for change and making a positive difference in Big Cat conservation – and the results are there to prove it.

Just an FYI – all of the photographs that I have included were taken by Evan Schiller at the private Mala Mala Game Reserve which is located in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.  Mpumalanga lies just north of KwaZulu-Natal.


3 thoughts on “What does a Karate Class for 5 year olds and saving Africa’s leopards have in common? Luke Hunter speaks at the Explorers Club on Leopard Conservation.

  1. Minoo Saghri

    Lisa, you did it again. This time, you tied in two beautiful stories together. Evan’s photos are so crisp. A great story about engaging several parties to come up with a creative, productive solution. Great read.


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