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The Zanzibar leopard (Panthera pardus pardus syn. Panthera pardus adersi) is a leopard population on Unguja Island in the Zanzibar archipelago, Tanzania. It is the island's largest terrestrial carnivore and apex predator. In 2008, it was considered extinct due to persecution by local hunters.[2] Increasing conflict between people and leopards in the 20th century led to the demonization of the Zanzibar leopard and determined attempts to exterminate it. Efforts to develop a leopard conservation program in the mid-1990s were shelved when wildlife researchers concluded that there was little prospect for the population's long-term survival.[3] In 2018, a leopard was recorded by wildlife biologist Forrest Galante using a camera-trap, thus renewing hopes for the population's survival.[4]

The Zanzibar leopard was described as a leopard subspecies by Reginald Innes Pocock, who proposed the scientific name Panthera pardus adersi in 1932.[1] In 1996, it was subsumed to P. p. pardus.[5][6]

Evolutionary history

The evolutionary history of the Zanzibar leopard parallels that of other endemics on Unguja, including the Zanzibar servaline genet and the Zanzibar red colobus. It is thought to have evolved in isolation from the African leopard since at least the end of the Ice Age, when the island was separated from mainland Tanzania by rising sea levels. The founder effect and adaptation to local conditions produced a smaller leopard than its continental relatives and one whose rosettes have partially disintegrated into spots.[7][8]

Behavior and Ecology

Very little is known about the Zanzibar leopard's behavior and ecology.[9] It has never been studied in the wild, and the last sighting of a live leopard happened in the early 1980s.[10] Most zoologists have since presumed the Zanzibar leopard to be extinct or very nearly so.[3]

Only six skins have been located in museums, including the type specimen in the Natural History Museum, London, and a much-faded mounted specimen in the Zanzibar Museum.[2] However, Zanzibar government statistics indicate that leopards were still being killed by hunters in the mid-1990s, and islanders continue to report sightings and livestock predation.[11]


Rural Zanzibaris’ descriptions of the leopard and its habits are characterized by the widespread belief that a large number of these carnivores are kept by witches and sent by them to harm or otherwise harass 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, and more generally for their appearance "out of place" in the vicinity of farms and villages.[12]

The growth of human population and agriculture in the 20th century was largely responsible for this state of affairs, as people encroached on leopard habitat and prey species. Increasing conflict with leopards and the fear that this generated led to a series of campaigns to exterminate them. These were localized at first, but became island-wide after the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, when a combined anti-witchcraft and leopard-killing campaign was launched under the leadership of a witch-finder.[13] The long-term result of this campaign and the subsequent classification of the leopard as "vermin" was to bring them to the brink of extinction.[9]


Serious attention was not paid to the Zanzibar leopard's plight until the mid-1990s, by which time some authorities were already listing it as extinct.[14] A leopard conservation program was drafted by the CARE-funded Jozani-Chwaka Bay Conservation Project, but abandoned in 1997 when wildlife researchers failed to find evidence for the leopard's continuing presence in and around Jozani forest.[3]

Local wildlife officials, however, remained more optimistic about the leopard's survival, and some Zanzibaris have proposed approaching alleged leopard keepers in order to ask them to display their leopards to paying visitors. Villagers sometimes offer to take tourists or researchers to see "domesticated" leopards in return for cash, but so far none of these "kept leopard chases" has been known to end in a successful sighting.[10][15][16]

These conflicting perceptions of the Zanzibar leopard's status and the possibility of its conservation have yet to be reconciled, presenting a dilemma that has been highlighted by researchers.[17][18][19][20]

Possible survival

In 2018, a camera trap, placed for an Animal Planet show called Extinct or Alive, caught apparent footage of a leopard on Unguja Island. The leopard appeared smaller than leopards from the mainland, and seemed to have smaller, more solid spots than normally seen on African leopards. Further investigations are planned in order to confirm whether or not this is a Zanzibar leopard, and whether a viable population still exists.[4]

See also

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