Thanks to conservation programs grounded in the sustainable use of biodiversity, African leopards have continued to thrive into the 21st century. However, the ongoing success in conserving leopards is threatened by anti-hunters and animal welfare extremists who use the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a weapon in their international campaign to end hunting’s contributions to wildlife conservation. In July of 2016, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Fund for Animals petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to designate African leopards as “endangered” under the ESA, a designation that would effectively prohibit U.S. hunters from pursuing leopards as part of the holistic conservation programs of African nations. Now, in response to a request by Safari Club International (SCI), the agency has announced it is extending the public comment period on this extremist proposal that, if adopted, would lead leopards down a path toward extinction.
The ESA has a noble goal: to prevent fish, wildlife and plant species from becoming extinct. It gives the USFWS the authority to develop and implement programs to that end, including limiting the ability of U.S. hunters to import trophies legally taken in other countries. Increasingly, the agency’s authority has been abused and even usurped to push agendas that undermine the law’s original intent, especially when it comes to African wildlife. For example, agency staffs—without consulting with the impacted nations—have enacted importation rules on elephant trophies that have decreased funding for anti-poaching programs. Worse still, activist groups have used administrative procedures and litigation to force similar regulations for other species such as lions.
"Leopard hunting generates desperately needed revenue for African wildlife agencies so they can pursue anti-poaching and scientific research programs that benefit all wildlife."To designate the African leopard as “endangered,” the law requires that there be substantial evidence that the species is on the brink of extinction in the wild. Contrary to the assertions of animal welfare extremists, the African leopard is not. Leopards are currently found in 18 countries across Africa. According to peer-reviewed research published by scientists with University College, London, leopards currently occupy 49-72 percent of their historic range in southern Africa and as much as 55 percent of their historic range in eastern Africa. To put this in perspective, scientists with the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism estimate there are roughly 14,000 leopards in Namibia alone, ranging across the hunting conservancies and other areas that conserve the nation’s vast wildlands.
The health of leopard numbers is due in no small part to the holistic conservation programs of African nations that integrate hunting as a management tool. Currently, nine African nations allow leopard hunting: Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. While hunting only impacts, on average, less than 5 percent of the total adult male leopard population, it has a big and positive impact on leopard conservation.
Leopard hunting also contributes to the creation of financial incentives to conserve African wildlands. The No. 1 threat of the largest threats facing leopards and all wildlife is the loss of habitat. Hunting depends on healthy wildlife populations, healthy wildlife populations depend on habitat and the conservation of habitat depends on the ability of that land to support good paying jobs. A 2015 report from the independent research firm Southwick Associates found that in eight African countries—seven of which allow leopard hunting—more than 53,000 jobs were created by hunting, adding $426,000,000 in contributions to the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). This powerful incentive for conservation is plain in Namibia where peer-reviewed research published in 2016 in the respected journal Conservation Biology found that if hunting revenue were to disappear, only 16 percent of wildlife conservancies would remain economically viable, leaving some 50,000 square kilometers of leopard habitat vulnerable to development and degradation.
With leopard numbers nowhere close to extinction—and with leopard conservation so heavily dependent on the ability of African nations to use hunting as part of their holistic conservation programs—an endangered listing for the species would not only be unwarranted, but foolish and counter to both the spirit and intent of the ESA. Like the leopard population figures show, African nation’s are more than capable of protecting the environment when they are allowed to sustainably utilize their wildlife resources and apply market incentives to conserve wildlife habitat. The USFWS should do more to offer these programs a helping hand. Congress can help by beginning work to improve the ESA and expanding the USFWS’ ability to promote and support hunting and the sustainable use of wildlife at home and abroad. Doing so will ensure that the United States remains a leader in wildlife conservation and the world’s outdoor heritage remains accessible to all people.
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About the Author Catherine E. Semcer is Chief Operations Officer of Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants (H.O.P.E.), a U.S.-based non-profit organization that provides training, advisory assistance and procurement services to African anti-poaching programs by leveraging the skill sets of U.S. veterans and the capacities of commercial businesses. A longtime hunter, Semcer is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN) Sustainable Use Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi), a global-expert network that promotes both conservation and livelihoods through enhancing equitable and sustainable use of wild species and their associated ecosystems. You can support H.O.P.E.’s efforts to secure a future for Africa’s wildlife by visiting www.saveivory.org. *Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are strictly her own.