Here are a few stories among the hundreds chosen pretty much at random

 

The illegal wildlife trade

 

 

China’s desire for exotic animals, tastes and products will probably push wild elephants, rhinos, pangolins and many other species to extinction within the next 10 to 15 years. This trade is destabilizing many African countries as poachers, armed by organized criminal syndicates, outgun security forces, loot villages and decimate animal populations. Their bloody haul is mostly transported by Asian agents who bribe officials and undermine the security of national states. We begin in the lawless, drug-soaked jungles of Asia’s Golden Triangle.

 

 

Part 1

Markets of death

The Asian end of a grisly business

 

In the jungle along the Mekong River is a palatial casino named Kings Romans where you can order freshly killed bear cub steak, grilled pangolin, tiger penis or gecko fillet and wash them down with wine matured in a vat containing lion bones.

The shop offers rhino horn libation cups and bracelets or, for more conventional tastes, religious sculptures and jewelry made from poached African ivory. After a night at the gambling tables you can pay a beautiful young woman to accompany you to bed. Chinese guests are preferred.

If you’re unable to settle your gambling debts, however, you will be locked in the local jail until your relatives pay. If they don’t you could, apparently, be led into the jungle and shot. (See Sin City https://eia-international.org/)

Kings Romans is one of a number of such establishments in the Golden Triangle, thickly forested borderlands between Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China. It’s an area of lawlessness and rebel armies from which much of the world’s heroin and amphetamines come. Similar ‘resorts’ include Allure, God of Fortune, Fantasy Garret, Regina, Mong Lah and Boten. The area is a conduit of death for an unimaginable number of Africa’s iconic animals.

This information is offered matter-of-factly over a cup of coffee in Cape Town’s Waterfront by an unusual, Kenyan-based undercover investigator and self-confessed troublemaker named Karl Ammann. Unusual because he works alone and digs out explosive information at, often, considerable financial cost to himself. A troublemaker because he’s uncompromising in exposing wildlife traffickers as well as governments and respected international conservation organisations when they become part of the problem.

His motivations – being inquisitive and a fierce desire to protect wildlife – are often suspect because he has no political or organizational affiliations. He’s an elegant, widely traveled, deeply knowledgeable, principled maverick and delightful company. But how reliable was his information? Corroboration came from a startling report, Sin City, completed last year by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in conjunction with Education for Nature Vietnam. https://eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/EIA-Sin-City-FINAL-med-res.pdf

‘Laos,’ begins the report, ‘has become a lawless playground, catering to the desires of visiting Chinese gamblers and tourists who can openly purchase and consume illegal wildlife products and parts, including those of endangered tigers.

‘There is not even a pretense of enforcement. Sellers and buyers are free to trade a host of endangered species products including tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, helmeted hornbills, snakes and bears, poached from Asia and Africa, and smuggled to this small haven for wildlife crime. [It is] largely catering to growing numbers of Chinese visitors.’

Ammann began exploring the jungle regions of Southeast Asia while visiting his brother who ran a hotel in Bangkok and discovered the village of Mong La in Boko Province, the last Burmese outpost before China. ‘That was 40 years ago,’ he says wistfully. ‘Today it’s another sordid casino town thriving on drugs and prostitution, but then it was beautiful. I made contacts, went on expeditions, met hill tribes.’

On return visits he realized things were changing fast and he began to document them. Wildlife trading was becoming an issue and he used his connections to probe it, first with questions and later with sophisticated button cameras and secret recordings.

‘Because of my economic background (he worked in hotel finance), I was fascinated by the changing dynamic from sleepy hill station to illicit marketplace and conduit into China,’ he says. ‘I was able to track changes in the area and thought I could make a contribution to conservation by letting the world know. It became something of an obsession.’

Those changes were to be devastating for elephants, rhinos, pangolin, tigers, bears and many creatures interesting to Oriental taste, superstition and aesthetic. In the uncontrolled, drug-saturated Golden Triangle, the illicit was profitable and law the prerogative of anyone wealthy enough to arm and command unscrupulous men. The area was to become, alongside trafficking of narcotics and humans, China’s illegal wildlife supermarket. Ammann tried to get information out about what was going on but, he says, nobody seemed interested. The area was a blank on the media map.

The transformation of Mong La became a model for the establishment of lawless outposts across the region catering for Chinese customers in search of products and pleasures forbidden in their country. Over the Burmese border in Laos, a Chinese company acquired a 99-year lease on 10 000 hectares of riverside jungle and built Kings Romans Casino, giving the government a 20% stake. Around 3 000 hectares have been declared a ‘special economic zone’ – essentially a private fiefdom. Clocks there run in Beijing time, trade is done in Chinese currency and businesses are Chinese owned.

These casino towns make their own rules. Sellers and buyers are free to trade endangered species and governments within the Golden Triangle curb any potential law enforcement. According to the EIA report, ‘the blatant illegal wildlife trade by Chinese companies in this part of Laos should be a national embarrassment and yet it appears to enjoy high-level political support from the Laos Government, blocking any potential law enforcement.’

Other developments include a private landing dock for boats, a hotel, massage parlours, museums, gardens, a temple, banquet halls, an animal enclosure, a shooting range and a large banana plantation. With complete confidence about protection from any known law, illegal wildlife trade is booming.

 Ammann acknowledges the value of reports such as Sin City and the integrity of the EIA, but tells me they don’t go deep enough. ‘You can’t find out about these networks the way conservation NGOs do by going around with a notebook logging items. You have to infiltrate,’ he says, hunching over his coffee and looking the part. ‘That means buying from sellers – and I do that.

‘The moment money changes hands it becomes much easier. You get information you wouldn’t get by just snooping around. So I’m pushing the envelope, which most NGOs have a problem with.

‘I send in my guys as bogus sellers of rhino horn. They show photographs and say: “We can get access to this. How much would you offer?” In contraband investigation that’s pretty common, but in the wildlife trade few people are willing to go to that extent. If I give NGOs this data they say they need to verify it. But they’re not prepared to use my methods, so how can they do that?’

Ammann’s methods of tracing networks through secret recordings and a bogus website he set up have paid off. He has traced the circuitous smuggling routes out of Africa and tracked down crooked officials and countless bogus CITES export/import permits.

He found that the wildlife trade in China to be dominated by a handful of key players who are behind the container imports. They have the infrastructure in Africa to get the containers loaded and shipped. They work with retailers, sending cellphone pictures ahead signaling, say, 20 rhino horns on the way. They’ve operated with port authorities and key dealers for many years.

In 2008 China legally bought 66 tonnes of Ivory from African in a CITES-sanctioned sale and built the world’s largest ivory-carving factory. Two years before that it had listed ivory carving as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

According to a report, Out of Africa, by C4ADS and the Born Free Foundation, China presently has 37 registered (and countless unregistered) carving factories and 145 retail outlets. A survey of the outlets found that most ivory items had no identity cards, meaning their source was illegal. In 2013 a contraband seizure in Guangzhou included 1 913 tusks – meaning almost one thousand dead elephants. (www.bornfreeusa.org/a9_out_of_africa.php)

A 2002 document sourced by the EIA includes a Chinese official reporting the loss of 99 tonnes of ivory from government stockpiles – greater than the amount procured in the 2008 one-off sale. An NGO report in 2013 estimated that 70% of the ivory circulating in China was illicit, and that 57% of licensed ivory facilities were laundering illegal ivory.

 ‘I’m not sure to what extent China’s enforcement activity is real,’ says Ammann. ‘It’s mostly for Western consumption. They sacrifice a shipment every now and then and that’s probably part of the plan. Maybe they give the container back to the dealer after six months.

‘If traders get a tipoff that the Chinese government is curbing the sale of ivory in China, they send the message down the line saying shift your ivory somewhere else. Laos, Burma, Vietnam.

‘That’s where some of the big dealers have set up their operations, places like Kings Romans. It just means the conduit routes to China are shifting. Sales in China may be going down, but just over the border they’re going through the roof.

‘Hong Kong is now coming under pressure, so dealers no longer see it as the future of rhino horn or ivory trade. They’re looking for new outlets in the Golden Triangle, Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos and in Vietnam. And if you put pressure on those countries, it will probably move to Cambodia.’

The truth is that the demand for wild animals alive or dead remains high, which is not good news for Africa’s animals. ‘Wildlife traders are running circles round us,’ says Ammann, glancing at his watch because he has another appointment. ‘They’re fooling us and most of them are Asian. And most of the NGOs – EIA is the exception – have operations in China or Thailand or whatever so they can’t rock the boat too much. For an NGO, being banned from a region is a big problem.

‘They can be the good cop but can’t afford to play the bad cop. I can afford to be that cop. The problem is getting the information out. Where and how can it make a difference?’

The only hope for elephants and rhinos and other creatures, he says, is if the risk factor is ratcheted up with some of the lynchpins ending up in jail. Hit the supply chains.

‘If the world really became serious about enforcement instead of becoming serious about talking about enforcement, it would be a major step in the right direction. But it will only come on the back of face loss. We have to name and shame.

‘But for myself, I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning. So I keep telling the facts and truth as I see them knowing fully well that I will not win any popularity contests.’

 

Part 2

Permits signed in blood

How cheating officials undermine CITES regulation

 

In 1973 the United Nations drafted an agreement – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) – to protect all non-human living things from cross-border exploitation. If it’s judged by that which it seeks to prevent, the agreement is a failure.

After drugs and human trafficking, illicit wildlife trade has become the third most lucrative crime in the world. Yet in the past 20 years not a single ‘kingpin’ trafficker has been arrested and prosecuted - either at the production or consumer end of the supply chain.

This year CITES delegates from 180 countries will be meeting on African soil for the first time. The question they urgently need to ask as they gather in Johannesburg is whether failure to curb this trade is because such crime is beyond the reach of any agreement, or because of failings within the CITES regulatory process. If previous such meetings are a gauge, this is a question unlikely to be asked.

CITES spends millions of dollars to ensure that the future of endangered species is being taken care of. The backbone of this process is its permitting system which regulates international trade. Karl Ammann has found disturbing gaps in this process, causing him to question the value of the CITES mechanisms and the honesty of many of its officials.

‘They’re not really conservationists,’ he says ‘It’s all about not rocking the boat and pretending everything is hunky dory and that they’re fulfilling their role. Any information that doesn’t fit their picture, they try to cover up.

‘I’ve publically accused them of covering up a wide range of criminal activities. I have the evidence. I’ve asked them to take me to court so I can present information they ignore. They won’t. Even with solid evidence, they’re actively covering up for China. So where do you go?’

An accusation like that needs strong proof to back it, I tell him. Can he supply that? For the next two days my inbox pings constantly with documents, reports and photographs that make for startling reading.

According to the CITES website, permits for the trans-shipment of animals, reptiles, fish or plants are issued in terms of three Appendices, depending on the degree of protection a species needs. If a creature is listed as Appendix 1, an import and export permit should only be issued if it is not going to be a commercial transaction, has been legally obtained and the animal’s removal is not detrimental to the survival of the species.

For the last point – survival – an exporting country has to provide a ‘non-detriment finding’ done by the CITES scientific authority, which is meant to be a check on that country’s management authority. Wild-caught, Appendix-1-listed creatures cannot be exported for commercial or zoo purposes.

For Appendices 2 and 3 – species not endangered – export permits, but not import permits, are required and conditions are generally less stringent.

In this process, the devil is in the detail. If a creature is bred in captivity, whatever the status of its wild cousins, it’s ‘source code’ on the permit is listed as ‘C’ (captive bred) and it can be traded.

This has led to what Ammann calls the ‘C-scam’ and has been used, for example, to illegally export hundreds of wild-caught chimps and gorillas to China from African countries that have no captive breeding facilities. CITES officials in the exporting and importing countries, he says, must know this but supply the permits anyway and turn a blind eye.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime acknowledges the complicity of CITES officials in permit scams. ‘Corruption,’ it says ‘involves a variety of actors, including the CITES competent authorities, public officials, villagers, forest rangers, police, customs, traders and brokers, professional/international hunters, logistics companies (shipping lines, airlines), veterinarians, and game farmers, among others.’ (www.u4.no/publications/wildlife-crime-and-corruption/)

There’s another problem. Originally all permits had to be conduited through the CITES head office in Geneva for inspection. But in 2002, claiming budgetary restraints, the CITES secretariat unilaterally decided that permits need only be cleared by its officials in the countries concerned and only reported in summary to Geneva.

It also discontinued ‘infraction reporting’, done when member states were suspected of not acting in compliance with Convention rules and where corrupt and criminal acts might have been committed. For poachers the leaky process was heaven-sent.

At the 2002 CITES meeting that year, the host country, Chile, called for a mechanism to urgently limit the circulation of CITES permits to avoid their fraudulent use, but the Secretariat shot down the proposal on technicalities.

According to Ammann, the point was made at the time that countries with poor governance records had resisted exposure to a ‘name and shame’ regime administered from Geneva. So CITES policy makers decided the easiest way to solve infractions was to stop looking for them.

‘The philosophy of the Secretariat seemed to be that it wasn’t a good idea for people all sitting in a glass house to throw stones,’ says Ammann, staring sadly over the Cape docks as seagulls scream at us for tidbits. ‘It was the end of effective regulation of trade in many endangered species.’

Officials, syndicates and poachers in certain CITES countries with valuable wild species quickly realized that less control meant more opportunities to advance personal interests. Some dealers assembled special wild population capture teams. A CITES official in Guinea told Ammann: ‘CITES is the dirtiest of the conventions when it comes to the falsification of permits and fraud.’

By infiltrating networks, Ammann obtained a sheaf of permits from traders involved in a wide range of such transactions. They were using the Middle East and North Africa as transit points, mostly falsely declaring these countries as the points of origin based on permits stating that the primates were captive-born. When Ammann presented the head of a CITES delegation in Geneva with documentary evidence of this, the official claimed it was fake and threw the report into the street outside the conference centre. 

‘There are worldwide mafia networks of interlinked dealers conducting their business openly,’ says Ammann. ‘They all claim to have good relations with the relevant CITES management authorities and are able to get pretty much any CITES export or import permit they want. The standard fee asked for an illegal permit across Central Africa is US$5000.’

The buyer is then free to stipulate whether the source code is wild or captive born and the management authority will fill in whatever the buyer requires. They don’t need a detailed address of a shipment’s destination.

‘Anybody can fill in pretty much anything with regard to the final destination or the facility sending or receiving them. I analyzed over 100 such permits and not a single one had the required exit stamps, or information from the relevant customs authorities about the specific animal or numbers actually inside the crate.’

One permit for two tortoises was used to sanction supply of two elephants. A permit issued for African grey parrots was used to export four African manatees to China. Some animals were shipped from Guinea with a falsified DRC permit.

On at least two occasions, traffickers told Ammann that if the buyer insisted on a proper but falsified permit for apes, they’d make sure their own CITES official would not file the duplicate copies of the permits when they did their annual reports to Geneva.

In Japan, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found that after CITES approved ‘experimental’ lifting of the ban on ivory trade in 1999 and 2008, the sale of illegal ivory skyrocketed, as did poaching in Africa. Even after the ban was reinstated, the EIA found that more than 1000 tusks of dubious origin were being traded in Japan each year, many probably sold on to China.

Between 2010 and 2012, a Chinese husband-and-wife team was caught smuggling almost 3.26 tons of ivory from Japan into mainland China using Chinese nationals in Japan as intermediaries.

The EIA described the trade as loopholes within loopholes: ‘Japan is awash with ivory and not a shred of real evidence is required by law to ensure that ivory is of legal origin and acquisition.

‘There’s no doubt that hundreds of fake and falsified permits are being issued annually,’ says Ammann. ‘In terms of bribes collected, hundreds of thousands of dollars are ending up with dealers who use the money to pay corrupt CITES officials.’

Member governments are obliged to prosecute offending traders and officials based on illegal activity. They must then confiscate the animals in question and discuss with the countries of origin a possible return of the animals. That’s the theory. In practice there appears resistance at every level, starting with the CITES Secretariat which will not push members to have this enforced.

 ‘The question that needs to be asked,’ says Ammann, ‘is whether this lack of will by the Secretariat to enforce the Convention is a major contributing factor to these illegal transactions? Is illegal trade being actively encouraged by this lack of control?’

Ammann recently  had a conversation with a top UN official who knew what was on his mind when requesting the meeting. The first question came from the official: ‘Are we better off with CITES or without it?’ It was clearly what critical observers had been asking  many times before.

‘There’s little doubt,’ said Ammann, ‘that in most cases he gets the answer he’s looking for:  Whatever the flaws,  we’re better off with some kind of regulatory framework than without one.  My response at the time was the same. Today I am no longer sure.’

With many recent permit infractions, China seems to be the main beneficiary and appears to have been granted a special ‘hands off’ status to do as it pleases. As long as Chinese demand exists and circumventing international conventions has no consequences, the killing and trading will go on.

China’s Wildlife Protection Law is presently undergoing its first major revision in 26 years since it came into force. There was hope that this would signal a crackdown on poaching and wildlife trade. However, the draft, currently under public consultation, states that wildlife can be used in the manufacture of  Chinese traditional medicine, healthcare products and food for profit. According to the EIA, if this draft becomes law it would open, rather than close the loopholes in wildlife trafficking. (https://eia-international.org/chinas-new-wildlife-law-falling-short-of-ecological-civilisation)

When COP17 (not to be confused with the climate change COP17) meets in Johannesburg in June this year, will delegates debate the CITES’s permitting problems? If Ammann is to believed, don’t hold your breath.

 

 

Part 3

A shameful harvest

How Chinese tastes feed a killing frenzy

 

Africa’s extraordinary and charismatic wildlife is clearly under siege from the wrecking ball of Chinese demand. Heading the list of critically damaged species are elephants. As the world’s largest consumer, Chinese hunger for ivory is stimulating transnational organized crime, trashing ecosystems, flooding areas with weapons, perverting legal systems and causing mounting tension in elephant-range communities.

According to detailed reports by international environmental organisations such as the Born Free Foundation and the Environmental Investigation Agency, Chinese nationals have been involved in ivory-related offenses in virtually every African range state. They’re closely connected to all steps along the ivory value chain other than physical poaching, for which they use African proxies. At Bole Airport in Ethiopia, a conduit for flights to Asia, a CITES report noted that more than 85 percent of transit passengers who were caught with illegal ivory in 2014 were Chinese. (www.cites.org/eng/com/sc/65/E-SC65-42-01.pdf)

Beyond Africa’s borders, Chinese nationals operate illicit networks that liaise with African poaching gangs, set up shell companies, bribe cargo handlers at various ports, then move the product through Asian entry points for sale to carving factories.

The Born Free Foundation has estimated that around 70 per cent of ivory in Chinese markets is illegal and the laundering of illegal wildlife products is widespread. Its report Africa’s Curse, written with C4ADS, describes the ivory trade as a massive, ongoing illicit resource transfer from Africa to Asia:

‘It’s robbing local communities of an important source of potential wealth, destroying the potential of critical economic sectors such as tourism and financing a wide range of predatory and corrupt actors across the continent. Locals incur the majority of risk and bear the majority of costs, but receive the minority of profits.’

Chinese law prevents the killing and sale of protected species and last year Premier Xi Jinping pledged to enact ‘a near complete ban’ on the import and export of ivory. China’s Wildlife Protection Law is presently undergoing its first major revision in 26 years since it came into force.

There was hope that this would signal a crackdown on poaching and wildlife trade. However, the draft, currently under public consultation, states that wildlife can be used in the manufacture of Chinese traditional medicine, healthcare products and food for profit. According to the EIA, if this draft becomes law it would open, rather than close the loopholes in wildlife trafficking. (https://eia-international.org/chinas-new-wildlife-law-falling-short-of-ecological-civilisation)

Elephants Without Borders estimates Africa’s present elephant population at about 600 000. Using carcass counts and consignment seizure numbers, researchers calculate that – between 2009 and 2015 – around 230 000 elephants were poached. TRAFFIC, an investigation agency established by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, found that in 2013 the kill rate was running at 50 000 a year yielding roughly 400 tonnes of ivory.

The effect on herds is devastating. By targeting tuskers, poachers are culling prime-aged males, skewing sex ratios and disrupting families, resulting in increased number of orphans. In short, elephant populations are crashing and, within most of our lifetimes, they will probably become extinct in the wild. This is also true for rhinos, pangolins, tigers, black bears and many other species that are victims of the Asian market.

According to the report Ivory’s Curse by the Born Free Foundation, there are three main elephant killing fields with a fourth, Southern Africa, soon to follow as more northerly herds are shot out. These are West Africa, the Congo Basin (home to forest elephants) and the East African savanna. (http://www.all-creatures.org/articles/ar-Ivorys-Curse-2014.pdf)

In these areas, according to the report, ivory poaching has increasingly become a lifeline commodity for militias excluded from the global financial system such as the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda, the Sudanese Janjaweed and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Much of the killing has been to fund wars, UNITA in Angola and the Selous Scouts in Rhodesia being past examples.

Large tracts of northern and central Africa are ungoverned and highly insecure for both humans and elephants, providing easy access for armed groups. North and South Sudan have been almost entirely stripped of once-huge herds of elephant, buffalo, giraffe and zebra. The ongoing conflict in South Sudan has seen the elephant population there drop from 130 000 to fewer than 5 000 today.

North Sudanese militias sanctioned by the Khartoum government – including the Janjaweed which committed the Darfur atrocities – were reported to be mounting ivory raids into Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the DRC they compete with the Congolese army, FARDC, who are the region’s worst poachers. This hunting is a continuation of wildlife harvesting across equatorial Africa that saw more than three million elephants killed in the 19th century.

Equatorial poaching is increasingly targeting secretive forest elephants which have harder ivory favoured by Japanese carvers for hanko stamps used to mark documents with sealing wax. In Gabon, commercial logging – largely under Chinese concessions – is driving roads deep into the rainforest, providing access to poachers who use logging containers packed on site to smuggle ivory.

However, according to Ivory’s Curse, the highest level of elephant poaching is in East Africa where the main enabler is not armed militias but state corruption. Between 2010-2012, without legal documentation, hundreds of live animals were captured and shipped out of Tanzania, in one case on a Qatari military plane.

Ivory tops the list, however, and Tanzania is the poaching epicenter. In the 1970s the Selous-Mikumi region in southern Tanzania had one of the world’s great elephant herds – well over 100 000. Today there are about 13 000. Poaching is done with military precision and brook no interference. Last month poachers shot and killed the pilot of a conservation agency helicopter which was tracking them.

The situation is similar in Kenya. In 1979 it had 167 000 elephants, today only about 28 000 survive. In Mozambique, nearly 20 000 elephants and all of its rhinos were poached between 2009 and 2013.

Born Free warns that Southern Africa, with two thirds of Africa’s surviving elephants, is the last haven. The area, it says, is likely to see a rapid increase in poaching in the near future as elephant populations decline elsewhere.

There are already alarming incidents, such as the ongoing cyanide poisoning of waterholes in Zimbabwe which has killed hundreds of elephants and other animals. Rampant rhino poaching in Kruger Park serves as a warning about the difficulty of ensuring the future of southern  elephants.

What is to be done? A study, Species of Crime, by Jackson Miller, Varun Vira, and Mary Utermohlen on African wildlife trafficking (http://ejfphilanthropies.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/species-of-crim.pdf) says that understanding the flow of ivory is essential if it’s to be contained.

‘Ivory flows upstream along its value chain, from low-value poaching in the “bush” across Africa into the hands of established African and Asian criminal networks. These move it through the international transport system to market tens of thousands of miles away.

‘After a tusk is removed from an elephant, there is an abrupt transfer from the non-professional but often highly militarized poaching networks that carry out the killing, to more professional trafficking networks. These are capable of nesting their illicit activities within the legal international trade and transportation systems.’

The value of ivory or any poached species increases in value with the distance from the actual killing. On average, the price increase for ivory between the poacher and final sale in China is around 4 000%. In line with their particular skills, each actor occupies a unique place in this value chain. One of these, often unknown to themselves, are legitimate container firms.

According to the Species of Crime report, many Asian organized crime networks such as the Triads appear to be consolidating and expanding their operational range on both ends of the chain. They’re reaching ever closer to the actual source of ivory in Africa, while expanding from trafficking into the Asian retail sectors, then deeper into direct involvement with black market carving factories.

With increasingly professionalized networks, they’re also involved in the movement of abalone, narcotics, weapons, precious minerals such as diamonds and coltan, human trafficking and money laundering.

According to Ivory’s Curse, the way to contain poaching is to harden the environment through which ivory moves, making transmission too costly and dangerous for traffickers. Given the poverty in Africa and the remoteness of wild animal ranges, it says, the actual killing is difficult to stop. Changing marked tastes at the Asian end of the chain may also take too long, leading to species extinction before it becomes effective.

The vulnerable point is the transmission network – forest edge to African ports and landing ports in Asia. If these could be hit hard, says the report, with kingpin traffickers ending in jail and consignments constantly disrupted, it would make the whole exercise too costly for traffickers and stifle the value chain.

The biggest stumbling block, according to the Born Free Foundation, is corrupt officials, particularly in Africa. This corruption, it says, goes all the way from crooked customs, CITES, police and park officials to entire government departments and elected executives.

As China increases its investment and influence in Africa, governments are clearly unwilling to upset relationships by condemning the damaging environmental practices that follow the Asian giant’s voracious demand for the continent’s raw materials.

The massive decline of elephants and rhinos are just two of many examples that suffer from this lack of restraint or official sanction. As earlier colonial regimes have demonstrated throughout history, there is a permiable margin between commercial extraction and looting.

 

Sidebar

Africa’s dying elephants

 

Chad: In Zakuma National Park, 70% of its 3 900 elephants were poached by Sudanese militias between 2005 and 2009.

Republic of Congo has lost half its elephants in the past 10 years. Elephant losses across the entire Congo Basin are estimated at 76%.

DRC’s elephant population was about 100 000 fifty years ago but is now about 5 000.

Gabon: Between 2004 and 2012 the Minkébé National Park’s elephant population plunged from 21 000 to 11 700 – a 77% drop.

Angola’s elephant population is about 1 000, down from around 200 000 in the 1970s.

Tanzania: Between 1976 and 2013 the Selous-Mikumu reserve’s elephant population fell from 109 419 to 13 084 – a 90% drop.

Kenya’s elephant population crashed from 167 000 in 1979 to 28 000 in 2014.

Mozambique: Between 2009 and 2013 ,the northern areas lost 9 345 elephants from a polulation of 20 374. During the civil war, 95% of wildlife in Gorongosa National Park was poached.

Zimbabwe: More than 100 elephants have been poached by dumping cyanide in water holes.

An estimated 100-200 container-loads of ivory leave Africa annually.

The price increase for ivory between the poacher and final sale in China is around 4 000%.

 

 

 

 

 



Botswana’s magical

Waterworld

 

An Angolan river that goes nowhere, forests in the desert, countless wild animals, thousands of islands and Stone Age dugouts for transport that’s Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the continent’s greatest natural wonders. It’s a pulsing, living thing in the middle of nowhere.


T

he silence had the tension of a tightly coiled spring. As we slipped away from the human world into the vast, claw-shaped Okavango Delta, the only sound was the soft ripple of water against the stubby prows of the mokoro dugout canoes. The slender boats were piled with an inordinate amount of gear.

Ahead, the muscles of a poler’s arm bunched momentarily then relaxed in the hypnotic and effortless-seeming action of propelling the heavy, five-metre craft through the clear, lily-dappled water. Hungry crocodiles undoubtedly watched the passing of potential protein overhead and quick-tempered bull hippos were out there ready to explode from their private pools, should our sudden intrusion disturb them. The polers, standing in the stern of each boat, remained watchful.

As we pushed deeper into this water world inhabited by more wild animals than almost anywhere else in Africa, my admiration grew for these men and women who ply the Delta’s myriad channels and seasonally flooded rivers. Their craft – dating back to the origins of human water travel – seemed in perfect harmony with the 50 000 islands and uncountable channels of the world’s biggest inland delta.

Our party consisted of polers and their chief, Julius Mpontshang, plus some fellow adventurers and Safari and Guide Services guys Peter, Frank, Joseph, Jeremiah and Shaka, the chef. We’d met an hour out of Maun at the buffalo-proof fence. It’s to keep cows from buffs or the other way around, this being cattle country where foot and mouth disease invokes serious paranoia.

Getting poled means lounging like a colonial dignitary watching beauty drift by. Bumps on the reeds proved to be small, speckled painted reed frogs catching the sun. They were unfazed enough to sit on our fingers if we urged them to. Later that day we made camp on an island and ate chicken legs, roast potatoes, patty pans and salad plus fried bananas in custard, courtesy of chef Shaka. Oh, and red wine. The hardship of camping….

T

he Okavango is a beguiling place. In summer, tropical storms rumble and flash across the high Benguela Plateau in central Angola. Water pours off steep slopes, gathering sand, leeching salts from the sodden earth and picking up speed as it gutters down long, straight valleys. By the time it reaches the northern border of Botswana it has become Southern Africa’s third largest river.

Here it channels into the Panhandle on a wide, meandering journey towards the Gumare Fault, a tectonic extension of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. It’s thought that the Okavango, together with the Chobe and Zambezi, once flowed into a vast lake covering what is now the dry Makgadikgadi Pans.

Geological faulting gradually tilted and lifted the earth’s surface, diverting two of the rivers northwards to their present courses and causing a great trough, which absorbed the flow of the Okavango. Over time this filled with silt, windswept sand and organic debris, becoming a delta which today looks like the leg and claws of an eagle – or, as someone suggested while peering at the map – a great green cannabis leaf.

The Kalahari, a huge semi-desert covering most of Botswana, is exceptionally flat: across 250 kilometres of the Delta the elevation drops a mere 61 metres. Water that falls in the Angolan highlands in December, and which pours into the Panhandle at a staggering 11 cubic kilometres a year, takes six months to fill the Okavango’s furthermost channels and, on good years, reach Maun.

Once in the Delta, the only place for the waters to go is up: swallowed each year by the atmosphere through evaporation and plant transpiration. That’s 16 000 square kilometres of vanishing water.

W

e set off again early next morning into a delicious dawn. This was how it was supposed to be. We poled slowly up the Boro River as the sun rose behind us, bathing the reeds, trees and us in golden light. Fish eagles threw back their heads and greeted the day, a honeyguide offered to show us a hive, jacanas padded over lily leaves and herons pondered the shallows for unsuspecting frogs. It was an eerily isolated beauty in no urgent need of beholders – an invitation to commit poetry or philosophy or any number of higher or contemplative crimes.

‘That’s mukwa kiaat,’ said Julius, pointing at a soaring tree on a passing island, ‘it’s good for making mokoro. Also sausage trees, but big ones are hard to find now.’

Dugouts are the oldest boats ever found. Nobody really knows if any other types of boat came first in human aquatic technology, but dugouts were around in the early Stone Age and a surviving African canoe has been dated at 8000 BC. Mekoro were first used in the Delta by the Bayei people, who migrated from further north in the 18th century, followed by the Mbukushu who also took to the water.

To prove their manhood, a young Bayei had to harpoon a hippo from his mokoro with the spear attached to the dugout by rope and then literally water ski behind the creature as it took flight. There was no guarantee that the hippo would not turn and fight.

In Botswana today poling is the highest-paying ‘unskilled’ employment and highly sought after. But with increased tourism and higher population density along the Delta fringe, mekoro are increasingly being made of fiberglass to protect mukwa and sausage trees. These look just like the traditional ones but are straighter and easier to pole. The initiative was started by Geoff Randal in Guma in western Okavango and, after his death, was carried on by Dan Rawson in Maun.

‘They cost 6000 pula,’ Julius explained. ‘That’s a lot of money, but they last forever if you look after them.’

That night spotted hyena’s started snickering and whooping. There’s no shortage of them in the Delta. A few years previously a group of us were chatting round an evening fire on one of the islands and marveling at the silence of the night. When we doused the fire and turned away from the steam, flicking on our head torches, we discovered we were encircled by yellow eyes only metres from what had been our unguarded backs. Later the hyenas raided the kitchen and prowled between the tents as we tried to sleep. Fortunately, this time, they kept their distance. 

The following day, after a hot walk exploring the island, we all eyed the cool waters with longing.

‘Could we swim here?’ we asked Julius. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘as long as it’s on white sand. Crocs don’t cross white sand in daylight.’ Could he find white sand? ‘Sure, in the Boro River.’

After much humming and hawing we all got in the mekoro and poled over to see. Sure enough, there was a clear patch between dark walls of croc-concealing aquatic plants. Who’d be first bait? The bravest leaped overboard with a splash and we were soon all in, keeping a watch for logs with eyes. An hour later we were still there, all uneaten.

Could we have a night swim, I asked. ‘You wouldn’t last three minutes,’ said Julius. After that it seemed a good idea to get back into the mekoro.

Later we pushed through pragmites reeds, which rained spiders on my lap. ‘Why aren’t you poling on the Boro?’ I asked Julius.

‘Here, hippos own it,” he said. ‘They eat mekoro.’ 

E

ven among the reeds, the water was sweet and diamond clear. A bit of later research explained why: Delta water gets involved in some really complex chemistry. Unlike most rivers, the Okavango carries very little mud, salts and nutrients. Most of the sediment is sand.

Because the river has no outlet, however, salt accumulates at the rate of about 450 000 tonnes a year. This should have killed the Delta ages ago, but it hasn’t. The reason is that swamp trees quarantine it.

Papyrus and hippo grass dominate the channels of the upper swamp, allowing water to escape slowly into back-swamp areas but confining the sandy sediment. These areas – communities of grasses, sedges and other aquatic species – transpire water into the atmosphere and produce peat, while bacteria fix dissolved salts.

On islands lower downstream trees transpire so rapidly they cause the water table beneath the islands to fall below the level of the surrounding swamp.

As a result, ground water from beneath flooded areas where most of the salts congregate flows under the islands, accumulating in the centre.

Eventually the toxic salts destroy all plants on the island. At this point the floodwaters should erode it and release salts into the swamp. But, with perfect timing, papyrus and hippo grass upstream will have encroached into their channels, causing sand levels to rise and blocking their flow. The water is diverted elsewhere and the old islands dry out.

Then, mysteriously, the peat in these dry areas catches fire from lightning strikes and summer rains flush saline poisons deep into the ground. Nutrients from the fires combine with sand to form fertile soils, which produce lush grasslands.

Because the area is so flat, the loss of peat causes the level of the land to drop, and swamp water gradually reclaims the grasslands. In this way Delta renews itself and its waters stay sweet and pure. If a living organism is something which undergoes metabolism, maintains homeostasis, has a capacity to grow, responds to stimuli, reproduces and, through natural selection, adapts to its environment in successive generations, then the Okavango is a living thing.

B

y the third day poling looked easy. We wanted to try. The temperature was up around 37ºC so being near water was attractive. We threaded through the long grass to where the dugouts lay and the brave among us stepped into the narrow, wobbly craft. Once committed and trying to balance with an unwieldy pole in our hands, the plan seemed to have fewer merits. The greatest inducement to succeed was the strong possibility that failure would land us in the jaws of a large Okavango crocodile. Lesson one was not an edifying sight, but nobody fell in. After that, though, we had renewed respect for our polers.

As we headed back downstream towards the buffalo-proof fence, a giraffe peered down at our passing, lechwe splashed in the reed beds and a saddle-billed stork slowly beat its wings overhead. The still water perfectly reflected a pale blue sky, giving us the dizzying feeling of floating empty space divided by airborne lily pads and egret-white flowers. The rhythmic movement of the poler ahead was so soothing and the stillness so profound that I fell asleep. When I woke up we were at the fence. We were back in the human world.

 

Smarter than you think

 

If you wonder what a baboon’s thinking, it’s always far more than it can explain.


Do baboons talk about things? The impression that they do is compelling. I was watching a couple who were gazing over the Cape Flats and the vineyards of Tokai towards their natural hinterland, the purple Hottentot’s Holland mountains. They would mutter quietly to each other then stare – dare I say wistfully – at the desirable distant peaks rendered unattainable by human settlement.

As anyone who has observed a baboon will tell you, they’re thoughtful creatures and almost uncomfortably human. And they’re smart.

There’s the well-documented story from the late 1800s of railway signalman James Wide and his baboon Jack. James lost his legs in an accident in Uitenhage and took a job at a small siding where he enlisted the help of his tame baboon. Each day – for years and at exactly the right time – Jack would switch signals, divert trains and push James around on a trolly when necessary.

There’s also the story of Ahla, a baboon on a Namibian farm who was employed as a goatherd. Her ability to recognise kinship relations was remarkable and lost kids were immediately scooped up and returned to their mothers. And as we know, baboons have learned to open car doors at Cape Point and scare the hell out of tourists.

But can they talk about things? The answer I got, after a bit of digging in current primate studies, made humans more interesting – but was rather sad for baboons.

Around 30 million years ago all apes had a common ancestor. Some 20 million years ago chimps and orang utans were still on our limb of the family tree, but between five and seven million years ago we branched off. On our solitary evolutionary path to here and now we learned to communicate through sounds, worked out tool usage, massively altered our environment to our advantage (unfortunately for many other species) and developed a large cerebral cortex. Those were survival skills and language was primary among them.

After closely observing baboons in the Okavango Delta for many years, behavioural scientists Dorothy Cheyney and Robert Seyfarth discovered that they (the baboons) spent much of their time gossiping and eavesdropping on others of their troop. While they found baboons had only about 14 types of vocalising, their responses to these ‘words’ and the activities of the troop indicated that they held in their minds many concepts for which they had no words.

They clearly had what the researchers termed a ‘language of mind’. They were able to derive a large amount of information from very few sounds, but no ability to structure those sounds into a communicable language.

But what do they mean by language of mind? If you think of, say, a cat, the image of it is nested in the idea of cats, which in turn is nested in the context within which the cat is being observed.

Now you may notice that this construction could be a way of describing sentence construction in spoken language, with nouns, verbs, prepositions and all the rest. Cheyney and Seyfarth suggest the reason is that language was constructed on the framework of a preliterate language of mind, which baboons have.

A language of mind also requires that the thinker have a sense of self and of their separation from others and the world. Baboons have this too, which makes them such fun to watch. So why can’t they speak?

There’s much debate among primatologists about this, but it’s probably because the root of constructed language is empathy, a mental conception of what’s on another’s mind. And empathy favours a desire to communicate. Baboons don’t have this conception.

A female baboon, hearing its offspring yelling in fright, more often than not completely ignores it. It would be like a mother in a supermarket ignoring her child howling in the next aisle.  Empathy requires introspection which baboons are seemingly not good at.

Humans, possibly uniquely among all species, can sense what another is feeling. This sense – and I’m quoting researchers Julia Pradel and Detlef  Fetchenhauer here ­– also gives rise to altruism, our ability to give without expecting personal benefit from it. We’re actually hard-wired to be nice.

So can baboons speak? The answer is no, though they may be on the brink and need only a few more million years to work it out. Although they have a structure of mind capable of formulating the rules of language, they have not developed the need or curiosity to anticipate what the next baboon has on its mind. Their life must be full of little surprises.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that a creature limited to grunts, barks or squeals is in any way stupid. In a troop of maybe 80 baboons, a single member recognises the individual calls of every one. In laboratory situations baboons and other primates (as well as dogs, dolphins and parrots) have learned to respond to hundreds of words and whole sentences, recognise colours and work out complex problems – none of which would be possible without an ordered conceptual language. They’re all much smarter than they sound. It must be very frustrating not to be able to say what they can clearly think.

I’ve always detected in the gaze of a baboon a certain pleading to be understood edged with puzzled desperation. I’m beginning to understand why.

 

Leopard



The speckled cat that walks alone

 

Powerful, silent and supple as silk, leopards are the most secretive of Africa’s large cats. Adored by tourists lucky enough to see one, unable to be contained by fences, hunted for their beautiful skins and declared vermin in many countries, their continued wild presence in a human-dominated world is an enigma and a delight.

 

 

L

eopards don’t want to be seen. They’ve spent millions of years getting that right. If they had spots they’d be more visible, but they don’t. Cheetahs do.

Leopards have rosettes framing a yellow patch on a pale background. You’d think this would make them stand out like a neon sign, but it doesn’t. Strangely their day-glo colours render them almost invisible in grassland, rocky outcrops or dappled forest light. At night they fade to black.

They’re the most elusive of the Big Five and bestow bragging rights if you see one flashing across a road or disappearing into the underbrush. Their coats are more subtle and striking than those of a tiger and they’re as lithe and powerful as dolphins. They are arguably the most beautiful animals on earth.

For millions of years, our species and theirs – both top predators ­– have been in competition for food and many of our ancestors fetched up down their gullets. So when we got to rule the neighbourhood, they were bound to be in trouble.

But despite massive persecution and being declared vermin in many countries, including South Africa, leopards have prevailed and, relative to lions and cheetahs, are evidently doing relatively well. They’re the most widely distributed and successful of the world’s big cats and occupy more diverse habitats than any animal other than humans and some associated rodents like rats. They’re survivors, but their range is declining and they are listed as near-threatened.

My goal was to find out how they were doing in Southern Africa and where they could be found. I wanted to look into their golden eyes and not be eaten. The obsession began in a small, thatched cottage in the Cederberg presently occupied by Quinton Martins and his wife, Elizabeth, who run the Cape Leopard Trust, dedicated to leopard protection. Their information wasn’t too encouraging.

‘They’re here,’ Quinton said, ‘but even farmers who’ve lived in these mountains most of their lives have never seen one. Existing around humans, they’ve learned to keep a low profile.’

The Trust uses movement-activated camera traps to photograph leopards and assess their size and condition. Every now and again Quinton captures and collars one with a small radio transmitter to plot its territory. And he’s talked most of the farmers out of shooting them and into cherishing their noble presence. It’s been a long, hard road.

‘You should visit Andrei Snyman,’ Quinton said. ‘He traps, collars and follows leopards in Mashatu. You have more chance of seeing them there.’

 

                       

‘L

eopards have to let you into their world,’ said Andrei when I tracked him down in Botswana’s Northern Tuli Game Reserve. ‘You’re lucky to come across one. If they don’t want to be seen you won’t see them, even if they’re a few metres away from you in the grass. It’s awesome. They live among people on farms, in koppies and near towns. Maybe you notice their tracks and a dog goes missing, but you never spot them. They’re the freest, most amazing carnivore in Africa.’

Getting to Mashatu had been interesting and required being ferried over the flooded Limpopo River in a squeaky cable car, possibly the most novel way to enter a country. There, for the past six years, Andrei has been collaring and following leopards as part of his research into the cats’ territorial patterns, habitat use and food preference. They evidently eat almost anything, including sheep, cattle, dogs, cats, mice, lizards, birds and the occasional human.

Before dawn the next morning Andrei, his driver Fish Maila and I were on a koppie looking over endless mopane woodland. With a blue tracking aerial aloft and receiver to his ear, Andrei was listening intently for the pip, pip, pip of a leopard’s radio collar. Finally he pointed, we leapt into the Land Cruiser and Fish took off through the bush with a skill that would make a 4x4 enthusiast weep with envy. ‘Don’t worry about the trees,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘they pop up behind after we’ve driven over them.’

After 20 minutes of wild tracking we stopped and Andrei whispered: ‘He’s right here,’ pointing the aerial down at a steep angle. All I saw was grass, but slowly, as if materialising from another dimension, it took on the form of a leopard. ‘It’s Bogale,’ whispered Fish.

The magnificent creature glanced at us, his eyes flashing, and continued stalking an impala. To his obvious disgust the antelope spotted him before he could pounce and bounded away. His coat rippling like golden silk in a breeze and his outrageous tail flicking with irritation, Bogale strode into a river course and was gone. 

‘We don’t know how many leopards there are in Africa,’ said Andrei as we made our way back to the lodge. They’re hard to count. They aren’t endangered – yet. But they’re getting isolated in a sea of humanity and are being hammered. Hunters lay bait traps along the borders of reserves and we can’t keep the leopards in.’

 

                

M

y next stop was Punda Maria camp in northern Kruger National Park from where researcher Nakedi Maputla also counts leopards with camera traps. He’s got 90 cameras all over the northern part of the park .His previous research was counting mice. ‘Much the same process,’ he confided, ‘only leopards are bigger so the camera has to be higher.’

I asked him what he was going to study after leopards. He looked surprised at my question. ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life!’ he said – clearly another captive of the speckled cats.

I tagged along on his daily rounds of setting up cameras or downloading data. We followed a shallow watercourse for several kilometres through lion and buffalo country, a gun-toting ranger in front and Nakedi with pockets of cameras and armfuls of battery packs. For a period of about 30 days the traps photograph anything that moves in front of them.

He downloaded one of the camera memory cards and flipped through the photos: genets, elephant legs, impala legs, rhino legs, spurfowls, windblown grass until, finally, a leopard – then another. ‘Phew!” exclaimed Nakedi, ‘I thought I’d have nothing to show you.’

Kruger’s large-mammal specialist, Sam Ferreira, was up north with Nakedi to see how the research was going. I asked him how best to see a leopard without the aid of radio collars or camera traps.

‘Seeing leopards depends on you and the leopard being in the same place at the same time.’ It was so obvious I checked to see if he was kidding me. ‘No, I’m serious. Think about it,’ he said. ‘You need to know how a leopard uses the landscape. Leopards are mainly nocturnal so the best time in Kruger is closest to gate opening and closing times. Go to rivers with big trees where they’d have felt comfortable to rest during the day. And use the animal sighting boards in the camps.

‘Leopards are creatures of habit. Where you see them once you’re likely to see them again. They use cover to catch things so look in rocky outcrops or places with big trees. Don’t bother with grassland or times like the middle of the day. People actually see leopards in the park very often.’ But, as luck would have it, we didn’t see any.

 

                

 

I

 had a final stop on my quest – very expensive but probably the best place in Africa for leopards: MalaMala in the Sabi Sands area adjoining central Kruger. There are several elegant camps in the large reserve which all have a colonial air and first-class cuisine. When a lady enters the room the rangers all stand up and offer her a chair. It’s all delightfully olde-worlde.

Importantly, though, they’ve been tracking leopards since the 1960s and they know every one by name, region, koppie and favourite tree. MalaMala’s regional manager is Nils Kure, whose book, Living with Leopards, is a big-cat bible. He set about dispelling some myths: ‘They’re thought to be nocturnal, but in fact they’re pretty active during the day as well though they can see in what we consider pitch dark. Baboons aren’t their favourite food, they don’t spend most of the day sleeping in trees and they almost never drop on prey from trees.

‘At night, though, they undergo a complete personality change. Then they’re far more confident. Females are the best hunters,’ he added, ‘but young males spend a lot of time with impractical ambition or wishful thinking. Like their fascination for buffaloes which they seldom catch but can follow around all day. Oh, and they pluck fur from a carcass before they eat.’

Ranger Andrew Batchelor proved that he was as good a man of the bush as sophisticated host pouring wine and patiently answering questions. Within 15 minutes of setting out he’d found the Kikilezi, Female, a beautiful young leopard that paid us not the least attention as she sashayed through the underbrush. ‘She’s got three cubs,’ said Andrew, ‘her brother was killed by a croc.’

The next day we found two more leopards, one of which was a large, battle-scarred male scent-marking down a track. He roared his importance as we stopped near him in the open game-drive vehicle. It was a breathtaking experience.

‘He’s big,’ whispered Andrew. ‘Much bigger than the leopards down south. They used to think those were a different sub-species.’ I looked at his rippling muscles and huge paws as he yawned, stretched and rolled languidly onto his back. My distant ancestors once huddled in caves while a creature like that prowled the night. Leopards may have provoked our first steps to cooperation as a species. Alone, we stood no chance. An Oom Schalk Lourens comment came to mind.

‘When you meet a leopard in the veld unexpectedly,’ he says in Charles Herman Bosman’s story In the Withaak’s Shade, ‘you seldom trouble to count his spots to see what kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary. Because, whatever kind of leopard it is you come across in this way, you only do one kind of running. And that is the fastest kind.’

As the leopard sat up and stared at me fixedly for a spine-chilling moment, I was inclined to agree. If you were to be its meal, you wouldn’t see what hit you.

 

BOXES

 

The far-flung cat

 

According to leopard specialist Anthony Hall-Martin, leopards hold their own in rainforests, frigid mountains and burning deserts, a range extending 16#000 kilometres from Mauritania in the west, clear across Africa, Arabia and Asia to Manchuria and Siberia in the east.

They’re found as far north as eastern Russia and as far south as the coastal mountains of the Cape of Good Hope. They hunt from sea level to around 4#000 metres in the Mountains of the Moon and the upper slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. But, year by year, their range is being decreased by human encroachment.

 

 

Leopard facts

 

The big cat species are lion, leopard, cheetah, tiger, jaguar, snow leopard and puma. Leopards, Panthera pardus:

·         Have the broadest diet of the larger predators with 92 prey species recorded in sub-Saharan Africa.

·         Can haul prey up a tree that is twice its own weight.

·         Can see in one sixth of the light needed by humans.

·         Dislike fur, hair and feathers and pluck their prey before eating.

·         Have the largest global feline distribution other than the domestic cat.

·         Have been unchanged for over three million years.

·         Can mate almost continuously for up to five days.

·         Throttle their prey by clamping their windpipe.

·         Are always closer to you than you imagine.

·         Spend most of their time dozing.

·         Are hated by lions, which chase them on sight.

·         Never hunt in short grassland – about 90 per cent of leopard kills in Kruger occur in dense vegetation.

·         In an attack, are so fast it defies the eye. Yet prey animals are extremely difficult to catch, even for skilled adult leopards, and most of their attempts fail.

·         Are generally so fleetingly seen that it’s better to simply observe the cats than try to photograph them.

·         Are so highly regarded among the Zulu and Shangaan people that only royalty may wear a leopard skin.

·         Can be shot on sight by farmers with Destruction Permits.

 

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