Zanzibar Leopard – Taxonomy, History, Conservation and More

Zanzibar Leopard – Taxonomy, History, Conservation and More

Zanzibar Infamous Leopard

Unguja Island in Tanzania’s Zanzibar archipelago is home to a subspecies of the African leopard known as the Zanzibar leopard or Panthera pardus pardus, which is feared to be stamped out owing to hunting by locals and habitat destruction. In terms of size, the leopard was the island’s most ferocious predator. As the human-leopard conflict intensified throughout the twentieth century, the leopard was demonized, and eradication initiatives were launched. The Zanzibar leopard was judged by wildlife researchers in the mid-1990s that the leopard population had little chance of long-term survival; thus, efforts to develop a conservation program for the leopard species were put on hold. Camera-trapped footage of a leopard in 2018 revived hope for the leopard population’s survival, although some researchers remain incredulous.

Reginald Innes Pocock
Reginald Innes Pocock


In 1932, Reginald Innes Pocock proposed the scientific name Panthera pardus adersi for the Zanzibar leopard. Molecular genetic testing of the leopard’s tissue led to its reclassification as the African leopard (P. p. Pardus). However, P. p. adersi is still used by some authors to describe the leopard.

A Chronicle of the Evolution of the Zanzibar Leopard

It is widely thought that the Zanzibar leopard denizen had evolved in isolation since the demise of the glacial epoch when the island disowned Tanzania by a stir in sea levels. Some of the leopard’s rosettes disintegrated into spots due to the founder effect and adaptation to the local environment. The genetic differentiation between this leopard’s population and those currently treated as genuine subspecies, all found outside of Africa, is much less despite the apparent differences between the leopard’s population and mainland populations. As a result, all African leopard populations, including the Zanzibar leopard, are considered part of a single subspecies.

Ecology and Social Dynamics

There is a lack of knowledge on the Zanzibar leopard’s habits and habitat. Until the early 1980s, there had never been a live leopard seen in the wild. Most zoologists believe that the leopard is lost or nearing extinction.

The Natural History Museum in London holds a type sample of P. p. adersi. In contrast, the Zanzibar Museum has a faded model of the Zanzibar leopard. To the dismay of the islanders, leopards were still being described by hunters in Zanzibar as recently as the mid-1990s.

The Natural History Museum in London
The Natural History Museum in London

Zanzibar Leopard Conservation

In rural Zanzibar, the concept that witches keep leopards and send them out to kill or punish villagers dominates depictions of the Zanzibar leopard and its habits. This belief system goes into great detail on witches’ creation and training of leopards to serve their evil purposes. They are used by local farmers to explain the leopard’s predation and, more generally, their being “out of place” near acreage and settlements.

An increase in population and agricultural expansion in the twentieth century impacted leopard habitat and prey base. The conflict between humans and leopards escalated, leading to a series of steps to rid the area of the feline menace. Following the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution, a witchfinder-led anti-witchcraft and leopard-killing campaign swept the entire island. It began locally. The long-term effects of the effort and the classification of the Zanzibar leopard as “vermin” brought the leopard species to extinction. Despite this, rumors of leopard sightings persist, leading some islanders to believe that the leopard is still roaming the area. The population of Zanzibar leopards was assumed to be lost by the mid-1990s. In 1997 and 2001, there were rumors that leopard scat had been uncovered, but no samples were ever found.

The CARE-funded Jozani-Chwaka Bay Conservation Project established a leopard conservation program in 1997. Still, it was abandoned due to a lack of evidence for the Zanzibar leopard. Some people in Zanzibar have suggested contacting people who claim to possess leopards to ask if they would be willing to show their animals to paying tourists. Tourists and researchers are periodically taken on this bid in exchange for money; however, none of these “kept leopard chases” have resulted in a fortunate spy of the real leopard.

Researchers have noticed that these differing views on the Zanzibar leopard’s status and conservation possibilities provide a conundrum.

On Unguja Island in 2018, a camera trap set up during the filming of Extinct or Alive filmed a leopard. In light of the video’s ambiguous origins and that only a few reputable media sites have reported on it, some authorities are unconvinced. To his credit, its creator (Forrest Galante) has stood by the validity of his claim. While it is evident that the footage depicts a leopard, the specific pattern of rosettes is still unknown, increasing the idea that it is a feral African leopard smuggled to Zanzibar. The only way to be sure that this footage is legitimate is to look for DNA evidence of whether it was really the Zanzibar leopard.

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