Researcher Short Articles


Unravelling human-leopard conflict through the eyes of a farmer

By Natasha Constant - Durham University

The smoke from the fire dispersed through the rafters of the wooden hut, where we sat recovering from our hike up the Blouberg Mountain. We waited in anticipation to meet a young, livestock farmer who soon emerged from behind the hut with a large leopard skin wrapped around his shoulder. He stooped to the floor and stretched the skin out on the red earth before us. The man greeted us and appeared eager to tell us his side of the story, about why he killed the leopard.
The leopard had killed and injured six of his beloved cattle over a week, leaving a single female behind for food, milk and as his main source of income. Livestock are culturally significant and linked to rituals associated with marriage, birth, and death, they are a method for acquiring wives and maintaining relationships with ancestral spirits.

He explained that cattle are respected, loved and adored by their owners and so attacks by leopards are viewed as ‘acts of violence’ with leopards regarded as ‘merciless killers’. To the man this justified their death: “leopards are not our animals we don’t want them here, they kill our animals and yet those wildlife people do nothing to help us.” An antipathy towards leopard conservation is rooted in wider issues related to the inability of wildlife authorities to effectively manage the leopard problem. Conservation and the establishment of protected areas for wildlife, engenders a range of problems in the eyes of local people.  Loss of access to ancestral land and natural resources that support traditional livelihood strategies, increased impoverishment and human-wildlife conflicts heighten public resentment towards wildlife and conservation.

My biological data has shown that leopard populations suffer high levels of persecution causing significant declines in population density on farming land. My PhD integrates knowledge from biology and anthropology to consider the motivations behind the killing of leopards and to offer solutions that address the needs of the farmers as well as the biological requirements of leopards to promote coexistence. My PhD has become a journey of self-discovery, where my values as a conservationist have evolved to become more human centred.

Understanding the root causes of human-leopard conflict from the ‘other side’ is important in identifying potential problems constraining conservation programmes. I have learnt that conservation begins with obtaining the support and involvement of local people because they are ultimately the stewards of future wildlife populations.

A livestock farmer stretches out the skin of a leopard to dry by a fire as he explains his motivations for killing the leopard, during an interview conducted on the Blouberg Mountain, Limpopo, South Africa. The leopard was killed in a wire snare in response to six livestock depredations.