The Zanzibar Leopard, Panthera pardus adersi, is an elusive and possibly extinct subspecies endemic to Unguja Island. Visitors to the Zanzibar Museum may be familiar with the stuffed and rather faded specimen kept in a display case there. There are only a handful of other skins in museum collections and this small leopard with tightly-packed rosettes has never been studied in the wild. The last time a researcher claimed to have seen one was in the early 1980s.
Many rural Zanzibaris believe that leopards are often kept by witches and sent by them to harm or frighten their fellow villagers. This belief comes together with an elaborate package of ideas about how leopards are bred, trained, exchanged and sent to do the evil bidding of their owners. For local farmers this supplies a neat explanation for predation by leopards on livestock and humans, and more generally for their appearance “out of place” in the vicinity of farms and villages (Goldman and Walsh 1997).
During the colonial period, when leopards began to kill increasing numbers of domestic animals and even small children, people responded in kind. Matters came to a head after the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution when a witch-finder called Kitanzi led a national campaign to rid the island of its leopards and curb the activities of their alleged keepers. The eventual outcome of this campaign and the subsequent classification of leopards as “vermin” was to bring them to the brink of extinction (Walsh and Goldman 2003).
When we began our joint research on the Zanzibar Leopard in the mid-1990s there were probably still a few of these beautiful felines left (Goldman and Walsh in press). Now we can’t be sure. Whereas most zoologists think that the Zanzibar Leopard is extinct, many rural people think otherwise. Claims of sightings abound, as do reports of other evidence for leopards’ continued presence and their nefarious use by witches. Many of these reports are impossible to verify independently. None of the cases that we have investigated in the past two years has produced confirmation of a sighting or other leopard signs.
The recent discovery of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, Genetta servalina archeri, suggests that perhaps Unguja has yet to give up all of its zoological secrets. This small carnivore, another island endemic, was first described from an old skin and skull obtained in 1995. Its status was uncertain until a number of individuals were photo-trapped in January 2003 (Goldman and WintherHansen 2003). If the Zanzibar Leopard survives, then similar standards of proof will have to be applied for any record to be acceptable to the scientific community. Otherwise most of us will get no closer to it than that faded museum specimen and those colourful cryptozoological narratives.
REQUEST FOR INFORMATION
We are continuing research and writing on the case of the Zanzibar Leopard and the many issues that it raises. We would very much like to hear from anyone who has any information about the island leopard and/or its products. We are especially interested in historical records from different periods, both before and after the Revolution, and including recollections of leopard hunting on Unguja and the fate of leopard skins. Correspondence should be addressed to us at 8 Church Lane, Cambridge, CB2 2LA, or bye-mail email@example.com. Any assistance will be gratefully acknowledged.
Goldman, H. V. and Walsh, M. T. (1997) A Leopard in Jeopardy: An Anthropological Survey of Practices and Beliefs Which Threaten the Survival of the Zanzibar Leopard (panthera pardus adersi), Forestry Technical Paper No. 63, Jozani-Chwaka Bay Conservation Project, Commission for Natural Resources, Zanzibar. [A pdf version can be obtained from the authors on request]
Goldman, H. V. and Walsh, M. T. (in press) ‘Is the Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi) Extinct?’, Journal of East African Natural History, 91 (112).
Goldman, H. V. and Winther-Hansen, 1. (2003) ‘First Photographs of the Zanzibar Servaline Genet, Genetta servalina archeri, and Other Endemic Subspecies on the Island of Unguja, Tanzania’, Small Carnivore Conservation, 29: 1-4.
Walsh, M. T. and Goldman, H. V. (2003) ‘Killing the King: Political Imperatives and the Extermination of the Zanzibar Leopard‘, paper presented to the International Symposium on Le Symbolisme des animaux: l’animal “clef de voute” dans la tradition orale et les interactions homme-nature, Villejuif, Paris, 12-14 November.
Martin Walsh and Helle Goldman