What was once a hotspot for the leopards of Africa has experienced an alarming population decline, with new research finding that numbers of the large cats are plummeting due mostly to illegal hunting. If the trend isn't reversed, the animals could be gone in the region within three years, say the researchers. As with some other animals at risk of extinction, the threat to their livelihood is driven by conflict between their habitats and that of humans, with researchers saying education will be key to their survival.

Researchers from England's Durham University set out to the study leopard population in South Africa's Soutpansberg Mountains over the long term. This particular, prey-rich region has been considered a stronghold for leopards – which are currently listed as vulnerable – providing enough food for them to live in large numbers. Earlier studies on the area have recorded the highest density of leopards outside state-protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa.

The researchers tracked the numbers in this hotbed for wild leopards by setting up 23 camera traps and having them run continuously between January 2012 and February 2016. Over this time, hundreds of photos were collected, and the scientists were able to track individual leopards thanks to their unique coat markings.

This allowed them to compile the most detailed picture of leopards in the Soutpansberg Mountains so far. The work also involved fitting eight adults with GPS collars and following their movements over a year, a period in which six of them died. The researchers found that leopard density, that is the amount of leopards per 100 km sq (38 sq mi), had dropped by 44 percent between 2016. Between 2008 and 2016, it dropped by 66 percent.

"If the current rate of decline is not slowed down then there will be no leopards left in the western Soutpansberg Mountains by 2020," said Dr Samual Williams, an Honorary Research Fellow at Durham's the Department of Anthropology. "This is especially alarming considering that in 2008 this area had one of the highest leopard population densities in Africa."

The researchers claim that a primary reason for the death of so many leopards is illegal hunting by humans. This is apparently driven by the impression that the wild cats are killing livestock, with locals responding by shooting, snaring and poisoning them.

"This was often in response to a perception that leopards were a threat to livestock," said Williams. "Clearly there is a need for conservation efforts to address these illegal killings. Educating communities and supporting them to adopt non-lethal techniques to help protect their livestock is essential."

According to the team, these non-lethal methods can include stronger fences and guard dogs. There is a temporary ban on trophy hunting leopards in the region, and the team says in light of the new findings this should remain in place.

"In areas such as this trophy hunting is a luxury that cannot be afforded," said Williams. "Large carnivores like leopards are hugely important to the ecosystem of an area and also carry significant economic and cultural importance. Their loss would impoverish both the ecology of the area and human culture, so it is vital that we understand the threats leopards face and act on this."

The research was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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