The Leopard & Its Endangered Species Ranking

A Public Guidance Position Statement

Subject: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Leopard & Its Endangered Species Ranking 

A Southern African Point of View

This statement is a service to society. Its purpose is to create

a better informed world public about Africa and its wildlife.


In response to a petition received by the American US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), suggesting that the Service should reclassify the leopard’s status throughout its range, from ‘threatened’ to ‘endangered’, in terms of the American Endangered Species Act (ESA), on 20 December 2017 the Service issued a document (ID: FWS-HQ-WS-2016-0131-0742) entitled “Endangered and Threatened Species: 90-Day Findings for Five Species”. One of those species was the leopard.

This response has been sent to Ms.Janine Van Norman at FWS HQ as requested.


The leopard (Panthera pardus) is probably the most wide-spread and successful big cat in the world. Throughout Africa south of the Sahara Desert, it occurs in every conceivable habitat; up to elevations of 5000 metres (Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania); and in rainfall areas of between 100 and 5000 mm (Mount Inyangani, Zimbabwe). They are independent of water. Whilst they compete well with other predators, in the absence of other big cats they are extraordinarily successful. Records show they still unobtrusively exist on the peripheries of several big cities in Africa where their prey base comprises domestic dogs and cats. They are primarily solitary and nocturnal by nature but often hunt during the day; and females are sometimes accompanied by their adult offspring.

Leopards will eat the foulest of rotten carrion, and they will kill wild game as big as an adult kudu, wildebeest, ostrich and hartebeest. Young of such species, however, are preferred. Their success in all regions can be attributed to the fact that they will catch and eat any animal upwards from the size of a mouse. Where dassies (hyraxes) occur they are a favoured food. On human occupied land, they become veteran domestic-stock killers, taking animals up to the size of a full grown ox; although sheep, goats and calves are the most common. They have a predilection for domestic dogs. When they know they are being hunted they become illusive, crafty and experts at avoiding detection.

In rural areas African villagers persecute leopards, killing them indiscriminately at every opportunity. These big cats are of no value to rural folk. On the contrary, they are a great liability because they become adept at killing domestic stock. Few rural Africans possess a firearm so they kill leopards with poisons and cable snares, which cause horrible and inhumane deaths. Most rural people in Africa, however, have no other choice. Furthermore, when a man is fighting for his survival in a harsh environment, and looking after the well-being of his domestic stock, how the leopard dies is of no consequence to him.

Commercial farmers in Africa, on whose domestic stock leopards also prey, kill them with poisons, too, and/or they trap and/or shoot them. And because it is illegal to kill a leopard in most parts of Africa, the farmers avoid conflict with the authorities by simply applying the “Triple-S Solution” to their perceived leopard problems: They “Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up”. They shoot them; they shovel them into a hole in the ground to cover up the evidence; and then they Shut-up.

Those who suffer regularly from stock-killing leopards, whether they be well-to-do farmers or poverty-stricken rural peasants, consider them to be a pest; and they shoot them, poison them, trap them, and kill them in many different ways without compunction. They will also kill leopards in pre-emptive defence of their cattle, sheep and goats, whenever and wherever their presence becomes known.

The vast majority of leopard deaths in Africa today, are the result of these kinds of killings. By comparison, the numbers of leopards killed by hunters is minuscule.

What is abundantly clear is that declaring leopards to be a so-called endangered species, and registering them, as such, on the American Endangered Species Act listings, will have not one iota of effect on the behaviour of indigenous rural villagers in Africa or well-to-do commercial farmers. They will still kill leopards, as they have always done, for the same reasons!

On the other hand, it has been the experience of professional hunters and wildlife managers that if they work with Africa’s rural folk, and with Africa’s commercial farmers, convincing them that it is in their own best interests not to kill leopards indiscriminately but to make them available as huntable trophies to the professional hunting industry, they can benefit greatly from their sale for a very high price. It takes a little bit of extra effort on their part to protect their livestock from predator attacks, but the dividends they can accrue from doing so, by them becoming part of the wildlife industry in this manner, is well worth the effort. And pre-emptive killings, which are the most damaging to local leopard populations, STOP. This approach works best for Africa’s leopards!

South Africa is currently experimenting with a new and constructive way of controlling the hunting of leopards involving, inter alia, dividing the country up into leopard-range blocks and allocating one huntable leopard per year per unit-block. The sizes of these blocks are variable and determined by the number of leopards each block contains. There is a good chance, therefore, that South Africa will find its own solution: to making leopard hunting sustainable and viable; to protect the leopard from indiscriminate killings; and the hunting community is working with the government in this regard. Collectively, they should be given the opportunity to take this domestic programme to its logical conclusion without having to suffer the impediment of having to also contend with unwanted and unwarranted legal restrictions imposed by foreign states.


  1. You cannot manage wildlife by way of public referendums, and THAT is what a petition is. Public petitions have no scientific basis, they normally only express the personal and emotional opinions of a small segment of the public: people who have no knowledge about the management needs of the species concerned; who have no accountability for the consequences of their demands; and who take no cognizance of realities on the ground. I would have thought the FWS knew this!
  2. On the other hand, petitions can be used as the excuse for an authority to make a political decision that the authority wants to make for reasons that have nothing to do with scientific wildlife management; and when that is the motivation for an authority to make a wildlife management decision, like declaring the African leopard to be a so-called ‘endangered species’, it becomes an indictment on the morality and scientific integrity of the authority concerned.
  3. The authors of the petition in question are not identified. The TGA wishes to record, therefore, that if the people who drew up this petition are not representative of Africa’s leopard range states, the petition should be declared invalid and be discarded.
  4. When every major national park in Africa contains a good leopard population that is SAFE and stable, there are NO grounds at all for believing that the leopard, as a species, is in anyway endangered. There is no justification, either, for believing that the species is even threatened.
  5. What will endanger the leopard is if the FWS declares it to be an endangered species and denies American hunters the right to take their African leopard trophies back home to America, because THEN the species will become totally valueless to Africa’s people who will slaughter it at every opportunity. This would be another great indictment on the wisdom, the integrity and the science of the FWS, and on America itself.
  6. The proposal to list the leopard as a so-called ‘endangered species’ implies that the FWS believes and accepts that every leopard population in creation is UNSAFE which is not true. Science based wildlife management practices should NOT be based on such false assumptions.
  7. The TGA does not accept the apparent divine right of the FWS to enact domestic American laws that will adversely affect another country’s wildlife. We believe this is not only an arrogant assumption it is also another indictment on the Service’s professional integrity.
  8. There is enough content in the correspondence covering this 90 day regulation, for any and all sane people to understand that the Service pays far greater heed to the anti-sustainable-wildlife-use (and anti-hunting) rhetoric of its domestic animal rights brigade than it ever does to the genuine wildlife management needs of the African range states, with respect to multiple species. And, in this respect, many progressive African states are getting restless.
  9. The TGA reiterates that you cannot manage wild animals by public referendum. So, we believe that to have taken so much account of the content of a petition on a wildlife management issue as important as this one is, shows a level of naiveté (or disregard for biological facts) that is unbecoming of a so-called scientific authority (FWS) that purports to be a world leader in wildlife management affairs.
  10. The TGA draws the FWS’s attention the fact that even CITES does not list the leopard as being endangered!


The Endangered Species concept is a fallacy. That makes the American ESA a false foundation for any kind of wildlife management deliberation or action.

To provide complete clarity on this statement, I must now, perforce, declare the TGA’s definitions of the terms species and population.

Species: A species is a group of animals that share the same physical and behavioural characteristics (they look and act alike) and which, when they breed, produce fertile off-spring with the same physical and behavioural characteristics.  

Population: A population is a group of animals of the same species, the   individuals of which interact with each other, in continuum, on a daily basis and whichy with other animals in the same group.

There are three categories of wild animal populations:

  • SAFE Populations: These occur in healthy numbers that are breeding well. They are constantly expanding but have not yet exceeded the carrying capacity of their habitat. They do not, therefore, cause permanent damage to their habitats.
  • UNSAFE Populations: These are low in number, declining, and the reasons for the decline cannot be reversed. Such populations face probable local extinction.
  • EXCESSIVE Populations: Are those that exist in numbers that are in excess of the population’s habitat carrying capacity (or, theoretically, in the case of predators, their prey base). My understanding of the situation is that excessive predator populations do not exist because territorial imperatives cause the eviction of surplus animals by dominant animals in the population. This has the effect of protecting the population’s prey base.

Wild animals do not arrange themselves at the species level. They arrange themselves at the population level; and they can ONLY be managed at the population level, one by one. So any action to impose a management strategy on a wild animal species as a whole (as in this case, ‘throughout the leopard’s range’) is fundamentally wrong! As with all species, the statuses of individual leopard populations vary from SAFE to UNSAFE. And good and proper wildlife management practice dictates that conservation management should be applied to SAFE leopard populations and preservation management to UNSAFE leopard populations.

‘Conservation management’ implies consideration for ‘wise and sustainable use’ (as prescribed by the World Conservation Strategy 1980); and ‘preservation management’ implies ‘protection from all harm’. When preservation management is applied to both SAFE and UNSAFE populations at the same time, in the very doctrinaire manner that is being here proposed, that action represents the ‘MIS-management’ of all the leopard’s SAFE populations. And no conservation authority worth its salt should be guilty of applying MIS-management to any wild animal population.


Man is a dominant part of the animal kingdom and he is subject to the natural laws of nature. He is a vital and integral part of the earth’s food chains and food webs; and attempts by urban man to induce society into believing than modern man can and should be excluded from this reality, are ridiculous. Man requires the same things to survive that wild animals need to survive. He, therefore, competes with wild animals in the global survival stakes; and if society does not write this fact into its wildlife management equations, whatever man does to prevent the extinction of wild species today, will become of no consequence tomorrow. And because of Africa’s massive human population explosion, this reality is of particular importance to the continent.

United Nations figures indicate that in the year 1900, there were 95.9 million people living in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. By the year 2000, this number had grown to 622 million. This represents a 6.5x rate of increase in 100 years. If this is repeated during the current century, there will be over 4 billion people living in this same region of Africa by the year 2100. Africa’s wildlife managers are cognizant that this is the likely outcome and their wildlife management programmes take this probability into account. Africa would like to know if the FWS takes this probability into account too, when it makes its doctrinaire wildlife management demands on Africa, like declaring the leopard to be an endangered species?


The only plant and animal species that are assured of survival in Africa into posterity are crops like maize, spinach, cabbages, bananas and TAME animal ‘products of the land’, like cattle, sheep and goats. Why? Because these cultivated plants and domesticated animals are the only species that provide mankind in Africa with survival advantages. When survival stakes are all that a man in Africa has to think about, which will be the case by 2100, he will not grow beautiful flowers in his garden. He will grow maize, spinach, cabbages and bananas; and he will not want to protect elephants, buffaloes, lions and leopards. Not only are such wild animals of no value to him, because he can’t use them or sell them, they are actually a liability because they eat his crops and kill his domestic animals; and wild herbivores compete with his domestic animals for whatever grass and edible shrubs are available. In other words, man in Africa, at the turn of this century, will not tolerate any kind of survival competition.

For all these reasons most rural black people in Africa would rather see all wild animals killed. They have a hard enough time surviving themselves as it is, without having to compete with wild animals for a place in the sun. And that fact is going to grow ever more intense as this century advances.

Africa’s progressive wildlife managers are conscious of all these states of affairs and they want to add wild animals to the list of species that can help Africa’s people to survive. They want to make it possible for wild animals to contribute to the survival prospects of Africa’s rural people in a similar manner to the way that their cattle, sheep and goats do. And they recognise that this is the only way that Africa’s wildlife in going to survive into posterity.

Southern Africans see nothing wrong and whole lot right, with the idea of man living in symbiotic harmony with nature. This is what the IUCN’s (International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s) World Conservation Strategy (WCS) recommended in 1980. That same year, the whole world proclaimed the WCS to be the BLUEPRINT that would take man and nature, in symbiotic harmony, into posterity! Furthermore, every single sovereign state member of the IUCN obligated itself to model its National Conservation Strategy on the WCS template. All the states of southern Africa were amongst their number. So, the original South African National Conservation Strategy became an almost verbatim replica of the World Conservation Strategy.

The third objective of what the WCS calls living resource conservation states:                       

NB: To ensure the sustainable utilisation of species and ecosystems

(notably fish and other wildlife, forests and grazing lands) which support  millions of rural communities as well as major industries.

This principle is now enshrined in the new South African constitution. And the same is the case for all the other states of southern Africa.

The sovereign states of southern Africa, therefore, look forward to the FWS helping them, and not to hindering them, on their wildlife management journey into the future.   And they look forward to hearing that the Service has rejected this petition on the African leopard.











Ron Thomson

I am NOT a ‘trophy hunter’ - and never have been. I am not involved in the trophy hunting safari business. I am also not a game rancher. But I have ‘administratively controlled’ professional hunters and safari outfitters in my capacity as a government game warden. I am an 80 year old ex-game warden with 60 years of continuous experience in hands-on wildlife management, and national park management, in Africa (1959 to 2019). In breakdown, I have 24 years experience in the management of national parks in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe - and in the management of the wild animal populations that lived inside those national parks; one year as the Chief Nature Conservation of the Ciskei in South Africa; three years as Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa; and I worked for three years as a professional hunter in the South African Great Karoo (taking foreign hunters on quests for plains game trophies). I discovered, however, that professional hunting was not my forte. I worked as an investigative wildlife journalist for 30 years in South Africa. I have written fifteen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the subject of wildlife management and big game hunting in Africa. Five of my books are university-level text books on wildlife management. I am a university-trained ecologist; was a member of the Institute of Biology (London) for 20 years; and was a registered chartered biologist for the European Union for 20 years. I have VAST experience in the “management hunting” of elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and hippos (as part of my official national park work in the control of problem animals); and I pioneered the capture of black rhino in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley (1964 - 1970). My university thesis was entitled: “The Factors Affecting the Survival and Distribution of Black Rhinos in Rhodesia”. Look at my personal website if you want any further details about my experience:

Ron Thomson has 229 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

3 thoughts on “The Leopard & Its Endangered Species Ranking

  • Good day Ron,
    Regarding the Leopard. I refer now to the population in the Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa. During the 1980’s and 1990’s we had a hunting operation in Pilanesberg and during that time I was a manager in the Parks system and also a Professional Hunter and I hunted extensively in the Parks system with overseas paying hunting clients for 12 years. Hunting was conducted strictly outside of the tourist zone.

    Pilanesberg used to be a cattle farming area and the farmers killed Leopards and other smaller predators in order to protect their livestock. When Pilanesberg became a National Park and the animals were protected and conserved, the Leopard population increased and thrived. As a result of this increased population, a number of displaced Leopards would periodically leave the Park and kill domestic stock outside the Park, for which the owners required compensation.

    Management then placed 5 Leopard per year on the hunting quota. Under this sustained use of a natural resource and wise management, the Leopard population stabilised and was healthy in numbers. Income to the Park from the hunting operation increased. Reports of stock-killing outside the Park were negligible.

    In the following years, due to increased tourism within the Park, the hunting operation was discontinued. The Leopard population expanded and today once again, displaced Leopards are leaving the Park and killing domestic stock – for which the owners require compensation. If the opportunity presents itself, these ‘displaced’ Leopards, are killed outside the Park and the ‘shoot, shovel and shut-up’ principle is applied.

    The Leopard POPULATION in Pilanesberg is by no means threatened or endangered !

    • Hello Koos,
      I remember those days well. I was then your Director at Bop.Parks. The old Bophuthatswana National Parks Board ran a good ship. And it had good people helping me at the helm – people like yourself, Jeremy Andersen and Roger Collinson. Hunting and tourism zones were created in Pilanesberg and, due to the park’s mountainous nature, they were easily kept separate. We were taking off 10 percent of the white rhino population every year for hunting in those days (beside the leopards) – 20 white rhinos a year – and their sale to the hunting fraternity brought us more money than 57 000 ordinary tourists coming through the entrance gates. Practically every other animal species was properly ‘managed’ and cropped via the hunting facility. We sustainably cropped other game for cheap meat sales to the local people, too. By these means we maintained the animal populations in a healthy and stable state. If I remember correctly (?), we took off 400 warthogs a year from the national park. And the habitats were stable, too. Everybody was happy…. including the local communities.
      Then along came 1994 and Bophuthatswana was re-absorbed into the new South Africa. Hunting in a national park was considered to be a scandalous practice by the old South African guard in the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. The innovative Bophuthatswana wildlife management policies, therefore, were tossed out the window. Hunting was stopped overnight. The hunting zones were absorbed into the tourism zones. More elephants were introduced to Pilanesberg – far more than the habitats could support. Several species of trees disappeared. ALL the aloe (A.marlothii) were exterminated – a main refuge and breeding place for the oxpeckers. All the thick bush was removed by the superabundant elephants (a vital requirement in black rhino habitat) – and black rhinos were an iconic species in the Bophuthatswana days. The whole physiognomic nature of the park changed. Lions were introduced (they were considered a MUST by the new regime – one of the BIG FIVE – for tourism!!! ) and they began eating very expensive breakfasts (disease free buffaloes that were selling to the game ranch industry at that time for R 250 0000 each – and the fact that Pilanesberg was created for the benefit of the local people (when profitability was of major concern) was ignored. And wild dogs were introduced, too, and I hear they are using the fence-lines to sandwich their prey animals in order to make easy kills. So they, too, will soon become supernumerary because of their easy killing techniques (which will turn them into a wildlife management headache).
      I fought tooth and nail NOT to allow more elephants into the park – and even suggested that all the elephants that were already in the park should be removed. I failed in having them removed. I succeeded in not having the elephant population increased. But more elephants were brought in after I left. Pilanesberg, we must not forget , is only 55 000 hectares (200 square miles) in extent and there are severe limitations with regards what a wildlife manager can do with it. Sol Kersner (bossman of Sun City at the time) held a meeting with the Bophuthatswana President, Lucas Mangope, and tried to persuade him to allow lions to be introduced to Pilanesberg in the mid-1980s. Mangope invited me to attend the meeting, and I persuaded the president NOT to allow the introduction of lions because, in those days, we were still trying to build up the population of disease-free buffalo. But after 1994 they came in anyway.
      And now, you say, things are being done ultra vires the new park policies – to hide the new regime’s policy short-comings – and swept under the carpet (under the principle of “shoot, shovel and shut-up”)!!!!!! A sad day indeed. But we have to remember that new regimes do things “differently” to the way the old regimes did things. New brooms sweep clean. THAT is their prerogative and it is to be expected. Their policy objectives are different to the policy objectives that you and I strove to achieve. It is, unfortunately, something that we have to accept. I think that the old Bophuthatswana wildlife management programme was much better than the present one – but who am I say what is right and what is wrong. AND I am no longer “in-charge”! We are living in different times, Koos, and nowadays we have to go with the flow….. like dead fish in a tidal stream!
      Remember the good times – and keep trying to convince today’s hierarchies to manage our wildlife heritage in the best possible manner. We must NEVER stop doing THAT! By the way. Have you become a TGA member yet? If the TGA is to succeed with its objectives we need ever more new members! Ask you your friends to become members too. Everyone is encouraged to join. Everyone will be very welcome.

  • How can a predator not be endangered if it is hunted as Leopards are ? By locals and game hunters? Prey animals are meant to be hunted not predators. These animals are precious to the eco system and the world , when they are gone they are gone. The government of Tanzania , should be forced by the world as a whole to stop hunting of these animals. As they are endangered , no amount of money should be able to buy an endangered trophy !!! What kind of a world are we living in, when we have to watch every word we say, but it’s, ok to kill an endangered animal for sport. Well, that is not sport. Locals poison and kill these animals to keep them from killing their flock animals, I understand their side of it, but they live in Africa !!!! There are some things they have to put up with, like we have to put up with traffic ect. here. It is what it is. In a few years they may need to kill a few back, but not now. Wait til their numbers recover. Please help the world save these wonderful animals. I do not believe hunting dollars do this in a case like this , remember when they are all gone they are all gone , what will hunting dollars do then? My husband is an avid deer hunter and I believe his hunting and fishing dollars help conservation of animals that are not endangered !!!



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