A recent study in South Africa reveals the vulnerable leopard population is currently threatened by negative human interaction more than any other factor.

The elusive leopard (Panthera pardus) has been declining at a rapid rate and historically been a difficult animal to study in the wild. In 2012, researchers out of Durham University in the UK implemented a long term study that would evaluate the density of the leopard population in one of their last substantial remaining habitats — the Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa.

The study states that large carnivores have lost more than 50 percent of their range worldwide while leopards have been more drastically affected, having lost as must as 75 percent.

Researchers set up forty six camera traps at twenty three stations throughout the leopard’s natural range and were effectively able to collar eight adult leopards with real-time location transmitters.

Image: Danh/Wikimedia

Over the course of four years, sixteen adult male leopards and twenty eight adult females were photographed. The study results were alarming, with leopard density decreasing from 10.73 leopards per 100 square kilometers in 2008 to 3.65 per 100 sq. km. in 2016 — equating to a forty four percent decline between 2012 and 2016 alone. 

In addition, only two of the collared leopards survived the duration of the study. Lead study author Dr. Samual Williams explains to Mongabay, “Illegal human activities like shooting, snaring and poisoning were the leading cause of death in the leopards we tracked.”

While historically trophy hunting, although banned in the area, has had the most catastrophic effect on the leopard population, conservationists are now more concerned with negative human-wildlife interaction, including snaring and shooting leopards that appear threatening to livestock.

“If the current rate of decline is not slowed down then there will be no leopards left in the western Soutpansberg Mountains by 2020. This is especially alarming considering that in 2008 this area had one of the highest leopard population densities in Africa,” William states.

The complete findings are published in the Royal Society Open Science.