COMMON NAME: The Zanzibar Leopard
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Panthera pardus adersi
Human-wildlife conflicts are common especially where people and carnivores live in close proximity. Narratives of sorcery and witchcraft surrounding large carnivores and other predatory animals are not uncommon in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, and in Zanzibar leopards that approach settlements and attack people are thought to be the agents of malevolent individuals’ nefarious plots.
Once there were differing opinions about whether the Zanzibar Leopard was a subspecies on its own or identical to its relatives on the Tanzanian mainland. Specimens at the British Museum were formally described in 1929 and classified as a subspecies, endemic to Unguja island. The Zanzibar leopard is smaller than its mainland relative the African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) and has a varying fur pattern. Nowadays the classification of this elusive creature is not debated; its very existence is.
FEARS AND THREATS:
In Zanzibar leopards have long been associated with witchcraft. It is believed that while some ‘wild’ leopards exist, there are also “kept” leopards, domesticated by mchawi (witches) and used to terrorise their fellow villagers and even family members toward whom they bear ill-will. It is believed that these leopards are bred and trained within leopard-sharing associations who own them. “Kept” leopards can be distinguished from “wild” ones by their behaviour; the former are fearless of people and venture close to settlements and fields, attacking people who come near them, while the latter attempt to evade sight and flee from human encounters. The target of a leopard attack is likely to fall ill or even die soon after encountering one of the creatures, displaying unusual symptoms such as vomiting leopard hairs.
In the past the association of leopards with witchcraft lent a degree of protection to the creatures, as people were fearful of the “keeper’s” response should they kill a “kept” leopard. However after the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution a campaign to eradicate witches, known as the Kitanzi Campaign after its leader, led to the detainment of suspected mchawi and extermination of alleged “kept” leopards. The campaign lasted for about 5 years and was supported by the government which provided guns to hunters. After this campaign leopards continued to be shot by National Hunters, subsidized by the government to kill ‘vermin’. In 1996, after a rapid decline in numbers recorded by Hunters, the Zanzibar Leopard was listed as a protected species. Following this conservationists attempted to determine the size of the remaining population, but found no physical evidence of any live individuals and declared the species extinct. Despite this, local people including Hunters continue to report the existence of the Zanzibar Leopard and its status remains equivocal. The differing discourses of scientists and local people pose a challenge for the conservation (or not) of the Zanzibar Leopard; perhaps it’s a case for the cryptozoologists.
Goldman, H. V., & Walsh, M. T. (2002). Is the Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) extinct. Journal of East African Natural History, 91(1), 15-25.
Walsh, M., & Goldman, H. (2012). Chasing imaginary leopards: science, witchcraft and the politics of conservation in Zanzibar. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 6(4), 727-746.
JENNIE HARVEY MSC
Jennie has an academic background in Biology and Ethnobotany and is currently studying for a PhD in Geography. She has interests in ethnobiology, biocultural conservation, traditional knowledge, and smallholder agriculture.