However, these big cats are not usually themselves the target, with hunters instead taking the leopard’s prey species, such as forest antelope.
Bushmeat hunting threat
Such intensive hunting is likely to have a negative effect on the leopard population in the region, even where it is not targeting the leopard directly.
To determine the impact of bushmeat hunting on leopards, the researchers used camera traps to identify leopards living in Ivindo and Lope National Parks in Gabon, as well as studying their scats to find out what they ate.
The team found that in regions where hunting pressure was highest, leopards were increasingly forced to switch their diet to feed on smaller prey.
Philipp Henschel, lead author of the study and an expert on forest leopards for the big cat conservation organisation Panthera, said that, “While leopards can hang on in forests with moderate levels of hunting, they are forced to switch their diets to smaller, less preferred prey species and they cannot reach their normal densities.”
The study revealed that, predictably, hunting intensity increased close to human settlement, while the abundance of potential leopard prey species decreased. The researchers also found that bushmeat hunting can push leopards out of an area completely.
At one particular site – where there was plenty of primary, unfragmented forest that was ideal for leopards to thrive in – the researchers found the forest to be totally devoid of any sign of leopards.
The president of Panthera, Luke Hunter, who co-authored the paper, used the team’s findings to highlight what is known as the ‘Empty Forest Phenomenon’.
“You can have intact, old growth forest that looks basically pristine but is so heavily hunted that there are few large mammals—and no top carnivores at all. It clearly demonstrates the necessity of strictly protected forests where absolutely no bushmeat exploitation occurs,” he said.
The authors of the paper believe that the evidence they present in the paper for the impacts of bushmeat hunting on leopards is also likely to be relevant to other big cats in Africa, as well as species found in Asia and South America.
“Overhunting of prey is undoubtedly a factor affecting the viability of tiger populations, and it is also likely a key factor in the ability of jaguars to persist in human-modified landscapes and move between them,” continues Hunter.
According to the scientists, conserving leopards in the Congo Basin will rely on effective protected areas and alternative land management strategies that promote regulated human hunting of leopard prey.
“The Congo Basin is one of the most important strongholds for leopards remaining in Africa; it is essential that we find ways to address the massive trade in bushmeat if we want to keep it that way,” says Hunter.
Find out more about the leopard on ARKive
Read the full story by Mongabey
Read the paper in the Journal of Zoology
Visit the Panthera website
Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author