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When Culture Threatens the Conservation of Biological Diversity: The Tragic Case of the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus

Mounted leopard in the Zanzibar Museum

Helle V. Goldman, Norwegian Polar Institute, & Martin T. Walsh, University of Cambridge, Presented at the conference on Sustaining Cultural and Biological Diversity in a Rapidly Changing World, American Museum of Natural History, New York, 2-5 April 2008

1. The case of the Zanzibar leopard
Local culture and indigenous knowledge can threaten as well as promote the conservation of biological diversity. This is especially so in undeveloped rural communities when people believe that their lives and livelihoods are threatened by large and dangerous predators, notwithstanding the value of such animals to conservationists as “flagship species”. Here we present just such a case. In 1996 we began a study of indigenous knowledge and local practices relating to the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi). This is (or was) a littleknown subspecies endemic to Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago in Tanzania. The Zanzibar leopard is thought to have been evolving in isolation from its continental African relatives since at least the end of the last ice age, when Unguja was cut off from the East African mainland by rising sea levels.

Leopards reported killed in official records, 1990-1995 1 2 3 4
Chaani/ Mkwajuni Kiwengwa/ Pangeni/ Mchangani

4. Conservation plans and their cancellation
In 1995 stories of the Zanzibar leopard’s continued survival were conveyed to the IUCN Cat Specialist Group and the following year the Jozani-Chwaka Bay Conservation Project asked us to undertake our study as a precursor to a possible leopard conservation program. Local accounts of leopard keeping were so compelling that a number of wildlife researchers had accepted them at face value. We found no evidence for leopard domestication, though there were grounds for believing that a small wild population was still extant. However, in a follow-up survey, wildlife consultants could not prove the continuing presence of leopards and advised that it was too late to save this endemic felid. International interest in the conservation of the Zanzibar leopard fizzled out abruptly and plans for a targeted conservation program were cancelled.



A traditional leopard trap

Thanks to Judith Chupasko and Mark Omura at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Cambridge, MA.

One of six known specimens of the leopard

Ta n






10 km

3. Exterminating the leopard
In the post-war period villagers in different parts of the island made determined attempts to exterminate leopards and/or punish the witches believed to own them. After the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, an island-wide leopard-eradication and witch-finding campaign was organized with government and widespread popular support. No one knows exactly how many leopards were trapped and shot during this campaign, but according to hunters who took part in it the impact was devastating. Zanzibar’s leopard population never recovered from the mass killing. State-subsidized leopard hunting continued into the 1990s as part of national efforts to control wildlife classified as “vermin”. Although some international authorities presumed the Zanzibar leopard extinct by the early 1970s, official statistics record that leopards were being killed by hunters through 1995. Leopard sightings and incidents of livestock predation are still being alleged and reported to this day.

2. Leopards and witches
Rapid human population growth in Zanzibar and the expansion of farming in the mid-20th century destroyed leopard habitat and decimated their natural prey, bringing leopards increasingly into conflict with people. Several of our informants had, as children, survived leopard attacks or knew of others who had lost their lives to leopards. Villagers explained the growing number of attacks on people and livestock by theorizing that some leopards were magically controlled by witches and sent by them to do harm, an idea with parallels in many African cultures. In Zanzibar close contact or even the mere sight of such a leopard was believed to cause grave illness. Reputed leopard-keepers were, like other witches, feared and respected. These beliefs still dominate local knowledge about the Zanzibar leopard.


Uroa Ufufuma Forest/ Jendele/ Hanyegwamchana Bungi- Cheju kerenge Pete

5. Cultural diversity vs. biodiversity?
Chwaka Ukongoroni Charawe Jozani Kitogani Muungoni Mtule

Zanzibar Town

Plantations, permanent cultivation Thicket, shifting cultivation Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park

Jambiani Muyuni/ Kizimkazi/ Makunduchi

Most rural Zanzibaris believe there are still leopards on the island, many of them kept by witches. Not surprisingly, they also enthusiastically support the prospect of the leopard’s final elimination. In contrast, international conservationists would be delighted by evidence of a viable population of Zanzibar leopards, but the consensus among them is that there are very few or none left. This case raises uncomfortable questions about the effectiveness of orthodox conservation initiatives when human–wildlife conflict is compounded by conflicting scientific and indigenous knowledge about endangered species. It underlines the importance of bringing both natural scientific and social scientific approaches to bear on difficult cases in which the conservation of biological diversity and respect for cultural beliefs and diversity clash with one another.

Endangered knowledge
Further reading
Goldman H.V. & Walsh M.T. 1997. A Leopard in Jeopardy: An Anthropological Survey of Perceptions and Practices Threatening the Survival of the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi). Zanzibar Forestry Technical Paper 63. Zanzibar: Commission for Natural Resources. Goldman H.V. & Walsh M.T. 2002. Is the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) Extinct? Journal of East African Natural History 91, 15–25. Walsh M.T. & Goldman H.V. 2003. The Zanzibar Leopard between Science and Cryptozoology. Nature East Africa 33, 14–16. Walsh M.T. & Goldman H.V. 2007. Killing the King: The Demonization and Extermination of the Zanzibar Leopard. In E. Dounias et al. (eds.): Le symbolisme des animaux: L’animal clef-de-voûte de la relation entre l’homme et la nature? Pp. 1133–1182. Paris: Éditions de l’IRD.

Like the animal itself, ethnobiological and linguistic knowledge of the Zanzibar leopard is also endangered. Only former hunters can now describe the leopard and its behavior in any detail. Very few people know any of the specialized vocabulary relating to leopards. In 1996 we recorded more than 20 Swahili names for the Zanzibar leopard, including euphemisms used to conceal reference to this much-feared animal and dialect terms for the different types of leopard that experienced hunters recognized. One of the most widely used terms is kisutu, though most Zanzibaris only know this as the name for a kind of women’s kanga or colored cotton cloth, worn ceremonially by brides and also sometimes used to signal menstruation. The kisutu wrap has a central motif of flowers and crosses that parallels the coat pattern of the leopard with its distinctive rosettes.