Leopards in the Limpopo Province are in increased danger of being illegally killed as a result of the actions of the government department in charge of their welfare, the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism. This is the opinion of some nature conservation officials within the department, game wardens and professional hunters alike.
The Limpopo Province is considered to be a stronghold for leopards in South Africa, receiving the largest number of Cites (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna) permits to hunt leopards in the country. Last year in December Limpopo hunting outfitters were told that the process for issuing the 35 leopard hunting permits in 2005 would be the same as in 2004 – "first come, first served." On this basis, the hunting outfitters went to Reno in the United States of America to market leopard hunts to a large international audience at Safari Club International.
Several officials from Limpopo government went to this same show, including Fixon Hlungwane, general manager of Limpopo Parks, Charles Maluleke, senior general manager of environment and tourism, and Margaret Nemutamvuni, senior manager of hunting and regulatory services. They did not indicate to anyone at the show that the permit issuing process was about to be altered. Several American hunters have now flown into Limpopo to hunt leopards, but the department has refused the outfitters' applications to hunt leopards. This is despite the fact that they meet the conditions that permits were issued on last year.
Last December, Cites doubled South Africa's leopard hunting quota to 150 animals partly on the basis of the healthy Limpopo populations. The South African proposal to the Conference of Parties stated "Most of the farmers will tolerate leopard on their property if it has a commercial value for them." They estimated that at least 50 animals are killed each year as ‘problem animals' and not reported. They motivated that a higher legal quota would possibly reduce the number of illegal poisonings and trappings. By not issuing its allocated permits, Limpopo is acting in reverse of the motivation.
Even officials in the department of nature conservation, although not wishing to be identified, have said that if the permits are not issued they believe that farmers will resort to quietly killing the animals if the leopards harm their livestock. Other people have said that they believe that if the permits are not issued some hunters whose clients have already arrived in South Africa will shoot the leopard anyway and find a way to illegally export the trophy.
Chairman of the Limpopo Hunter's Liaison Forum, Johan Bosch, says that he personally knows of at least two hunters who have been forced to return to America without hunting, and suspects that there are several more. Outfitter Ernest Dyason submitted an application to hunt a leopard in the Musina area. Charles Maluleke turned down his application on the grounds that he would "not give a permit for commercial purposes." Dyason asked Maluleke to reconsider as the hunt also had conservation value. His application had received a positive motivation from the nature conservation official on the ground, Leon de Jager.
It was to take place on a farm of around 5,000ha where the game population had declined as a result of leopard predation, and no leopards had been hunted for 15 years. The landowner had bought more land and unsuccessfully tried to capture and relocate leopard to keep his stock numbers up. When this failed he finally decided that a leopard could be hunted, and Dyason marketed the hunt. A permit was never issued by Limpopo and Dyason was forced to take his client to Zimbabwe where they successfully completed a leopard hunt.
Maluleke told the Kruger Park Times that before a permit can be issued "there must be a convincing reason for shooting a leopard" and that he, as the final decision maker in the process, would "only issue permits to those who qualify." He said that a leopard could be hunted for conservation purposes, and only those individuals and companies that had started a black empowerment process would be considered. He added that as the hunting industry was a "cash business", outfitters would have to provide proof of tax clearance. "Government must also share in the money they make." He reiterated, "Hunting for commercial purposes is not a reason at all."
Bua News estimates that the Limpopo Province accounts for about 40 percent of the one billion Rand generated each year by international hunters. Johan Bosch estimates that with a 14-day minimum for a leopard hunt, Limpopo derives a direct revenue of over R2 million from 35 leopard hunts. This does not include other related industries such as airlines, taxidermists, trackers, skinners and curio sellers that bring more money into the provincial economy.
Dyason and Bosch both say that they recognise the need for transformation in the industry, and Bosch has already trained two black professional hunters. He says that black partners are more of a problem. "We cannot simply fabricate them." As yet there are no national guidelines in place for the transformation of the hunting industry. Black empowerment was also not mentioned to the hunting outfitters when they were specifically marketing the hunts overseas. This stipulation by the department appears to have only been made after applications for leopard hunting permits were received.
This gives hunters only weeks to effect transformation if they wish to obtain a hunting permit. Dyason estimates that there are only a handful of black professional hunters currently in Limpopo, and that there are no black-owned outfitters. Professional hunters are worried that in future fewer hunters will come to Limpopo and South Africa because of the bad experiences of those that have been turned away.
This will then mean that less money will be available to maintain game farms. Bosch says that the department's actions "From a conservation point of view are a little short sighted – this can have a domino effect." He says that the effect may not be felt only this year, but in years to come. Dyason is already looking to the future. "By 2007 I plan to have pulled my entire hunting operation [in South Africa] and moved to Tanzania."