Big Cats Initiative, part 2: Spotting leopards

This is part 2 of my blog series on the Big Cats Initiative at Duke. Part 1 of the series, on saving lions, can be found here.


“Just there, under the tree!”

“Where? I don’t see anything.”

“To the right of the boulder.”

“Oh, is that –? It’s – oh, no, it’s just grass. Still don’t see anything.”

The binoculars were pressed hard up to my face as I trained them on a single acacia tree and boulder, 100 feet out in the savanna. I moved them slowly from the tree to the rock to the plains, alert for the swish of a tail or a hint of black spots, but as far as I could see the savanna was cat-free.

The safari guide in the truck next to us had alerted our guide over the radio to come to this lookout minutes earlier. He pointed resolutely toward the distant boulder while he peered through his own binoculars.

“Ah, yes, he may be asleep.”

Great. This was our last morning in the Serengeti. If he really was asleep, we were pretty much out of luck for a sighting on this trip.

Giving up, our guide gunned the Land Cruiser’s engine and we trundled away along a dirt road, around one of the many rocky kopjes that dot the Serengeti plains.

As we rounded the bend, he came into full view. Definitely not asleep. He perched on a rock, as if waiting for us, his breathing slow and deliberate, his whiskers feeling our presence on the air, his yellow eyes piercing the land itself.

My breath caught in my throat. We had found a leopard.

My first and only encounter with a wild leopard, in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Until last year, no range-wide population study for leopards had ever been completed.

It’s no coincidence that even in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, with its famously high density of predators, leopards are extremely difficult to spot. The leopard is notoriously the most elusive of all big cats.

It lives almost everywhere – from the tip of South Africa to the edge of the Sahara, from the Arabian desert to the snows of Siberia and the jungles of Indonesia – and yet is nowhere to be found. A solitary animal, the leopard spends most of its time camouflaged among tree branches, and relies on stealth to hunt. Because of its secrecy, no distribution study had ever been completed across the species’ entire range.

So, naturally, after publishing its seminal paper on lions in 2013, the Big Cats Initiative (BCI) at Duke took on exactly that: a range-wide distribution study of leopards.

Over three years of work, dozens of students at Duke and nearby Pfeiffer University compiled records of leopard presences and absences across its vast range, noting the vintage and quality of each data source. They turned those records into spatial maps using GIS and verified leopard distributions against data on protected areas and human populations. All told, the study combined over 1,300 literature sources and knowledge from more than 75 experts in the field.

Partnerships were also critical in bringing this groundbreaking project to fruition. BCI teamed up once again with Philipp Henschel at Panthera, who had also co-authored the earlier lion paper, and further relied on Peter Gerngross of the Austrian mapping firm BIOGEOMAPS. Gerngross’ mapping expertise was key in creating what he called “the most detailed reconstruction of the leopard’s historic range to date.”

The BCI leopard paper was ultimately published in May 2016 in the journal PeerJ. Its findings rocked the conservation community.

Across all of Africa and Asia, the leopard has lost up to 75% of its habitat. Three of its nine subspecies, in Arabia, China and Siberia, have been nearly wiped out, with range loss close to 95%. Leopard populations in North and West Africa are in similarly grave danger.

Leopards have lost up to three-quarters of their habitat worldwide. In Asia, only about 15% of leopard habitat remains.

This comprehensive study was exactly what advocacy groups had been waiting for to make a scientific case for protecting the leopard under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (The act prohibits trade in wildlife products, including pelts and trophies, for listed species). In July, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and others filed a petition to list the leopard as endangered. Four months later, the Fish & Wildlife Service decided that the petition had merit, based primarily on evidence from the BCI paper.

The public comment period for listing the leopard as endangered closed at the end of January. Over 16,000 comments were submitted (including one by this author). Now, it’s a waiting game while the Fish & Wildlife Service makes a final decision on whether the leopard truly is endangered.

As it happens, my vivid encounter with a leopard on the Serengeti occurred just weeks after the BCI leopard study went to press. As people around the world learned just how much ground the leopard had lost, I came face-to-face with a leopard on some of the precious ground it still owned.

Thanks to the tireless BCI team, I now know just how rare encounters like mine have become across Africa and Asia. The science is in. Now it’s time for strong policy action, like South Africa’s hunting ban of 2016, to follow. The most elusive big cat depends on it.

The leopard camouflages into the brush as it escapes up a kopje in Serengeti National Park. Leopards are currently being reviewed for listing under the US Endangered Species Act. Strong policy action is needed in the US and worldwide to halt their decline.

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