The Zanzibar leopard was a population of leopards (Panthera pardus) native to Zanzibar Island (Unguja).
Zanzibar Island is the largest single island in the Zanzibar archipelago, part of the United Republic of Tanzania.
The leopards lived in the dense forests of Unguja, including the Jozani forest, now part of the Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park.
The Zanzibar leopard was considered the apex predator in its natural habitat. However, experts believe they have been extinct since the mid-1990s due to human encroachment on their habitats and an organized campaign to exterminate them.
Some biologists consider the Zanzibar leopard a separate subspecies of leopards. The zoologist Reginald Innes Pocock proposed the subspecies designation Panthera pardus adersi in 1932.
However, other zoologists suggested they were only a stabilized population (or variety) of the African leopard subspecies (Panthera pardus pardus).
The Zanzibar leopard was smaller and shorter than the African leopard.
[Fun fact: Populations of large animal species that become geographically isolated in small environments, such as islands, tend to evolve a reduced body size. Biologists refer to this phenomenon as insular dwarfism.]
Zanzibar leopards had large skulls, powerful jaws, and canine teeth. They also had long tails and muscular bodies. Their fur markings were different from the African leopard.
African leopards have black fur markings with a rosette pattern that enhances camouflage while hunting. It consists of a rose-shaped cluster of spots that constitute the overall rosette pattern.
However, the fur markings of the Zanzibar leopard were different. They were more like solid black spots than a rosette pattern.
Zanzibar leopard origin
Wildlife experts believe that the Zanzibar leopard evolved from the African leopard. Their ancestors were African leopards who became stranded on Zanzibar after the island was isolated from the African mainland during the Last Ice Age, about 100,000-25000 years ago (Walsh and Goldman, 2007).
The Zanzibar leopard population developed the phenotypic traits that distinguished them from mainland African leopards, such as smaller size and a unique pattern of coat marking.
Despite the differences, many zoologists believe Zanzibar and African leopards belong to the same subspecies, Panthera pardus pardus.
Zanzibar leopard behavior
Zoologists know only very little about the unique behavioral traits of Zanzibar leopards. Experts believe they became extinct in the 1980s or 1990s. Researchers did not have the opportunity to study them in the wild before they allegedly became extinct.
However, experts believe they likely shared many of the behavioral traits of their mainland cousins.
Zanzibaris decided to exterminate the leopards because they considered them vermin. Population growth during the early 20th century caused the expansion of human settlements and the clearing of more land for agricultural purposes.
Humans encroached into the natural habitat of the Zanzibar leopard, causing increased survival pressures.
There were unsuccessful efforts at conservation programs to restore the population in the 1990s.
Sightings and Tales
The last alleged sighting of the Zanzibar leopard in the wild occurred in the 1980s.
Many biologists believe they ceased to exist in the wild in the mid-1990s despite claimed sightings by local people and alleged attacks on livestock..
Zanzibaris considered leopards vermin
Zanzibaris hunted the leopard to extinction because they considered them a threat to their communities and livestock.
However, the conflict between humans and leopards was due to human encroachment on their natural habitat. The degradation of forest habitats due to human activity made the species the leopards preyed upon scarce. Therefore, leopards resorted to attacking livestock and humans for survival.
The leopards soon acquired a bad reputation among villagers. The locals labeled them vermin to be hunted and killed at sight.
Early visitors to Zanzibar–such as the British explorer Richard Burton, who visited the island in 1856-1859–reported ongoing conflict between the local human and leopard populations.
Villagers regularly set traps for the leopards and speared them (Walsh and Goldman, 2007).
Dr. Mansfield-Aders (1920) also reported that leopards preyed on domestic livestock, including poultry, sheep, goats, and cattle. They also attacked dogs and cats.
The leopards sometimes attacked humans, and there were multiple cases of death due to attacks. In the 1920s, a leopard entered a hut and attacked an infant while his mother guarded crops on the field. Fortunately, the boy survived.
Folklore: Witches kept leopards
The perception that leopards threatened the human population encouraged negative cultural attitudes toward them. Local folklore claimed that witches (Wachawi, singular: Mchawi) bred leopards and used them for evil purposes, such as sending them to kill other humans or livestock.
The people ascribed leopard attacks to alleged witches and wizards who kept them to do their evil bidding (Walsh and Goldman, 2007). Thus, they distinguished between “wild” and “wizard-kept” leopards.
According to folklore, any leopard that stayed close to human settlements and attacked people or livestock was wizard-kept. However, those that lived deep in the forests and fled when they saw humans were the “wild” type.
Community members who behaved “suspiciously” could be accused of being leopard-keeping wizards.
The Kitanzi Campaign
The belief that leopards were agents of witches justified organized efforts under the direction of local “witch-finders” to exterminate them.
The organized killing of leopards transformed into a national campaign in the mid-1960s. The revolutionary government that came to power in 1964 endorsed the Kitanzi Campaign (Weier, 2019) to exterminate the Zanzibar leopard population.
Kitanzi was the name of an influential witch-finder. Kitanzi Mtaji Kitanzi led the national movement to rid Zanzibar of the leopards and their alleged keepers (Walsh and Goldman, 2007).
The anti-witchcraft campaign proved devastating for the leopard population. By the late 1980s, there were hardly any left in the wild.
By the mid-1990s, experts assumed that the population was extinct.
The government officially declared the Zanzibar leopard extinct in 2015.
Zanzibar leopard conservation efforts
In the 1990s, the government belatedly supported conservation programs to end the killing of leopards and restore the wild population.
Although experts believed the Zanzibari leopards were extinct, locals continued claiming occasional sightings in the 1990s. Some locals even said they knew people who bred leopards and claimed they could take researchers to see them for a fee.
However, wildlife experts working on the Jozani-Chwaka Bay Conservation Project (JCBCP), a collaborative project involving CARE-Tanzania and the Government of Zanzibar, found no evidence of the leopards in the wild, so they suspended the program.
More recent claimed sightings
In September 2018, a camera trap set up on the Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park in Zanzibar Island by the biologist Forrest Galante for Extinct or Alive, an Animal Planet TV series, appeared to capture a Zanzibar leopard (see video below).
But many experts contested the claim due to suspicions that the camera might have captured an African leopard artificially introduced to the island.
Experts insisted that only DNA evidence could verify the claim.
However, sighting allegations continued until 2019. Villagers reported killing a juvenile leopard in 2019. The discovery of half-eaten antelope carcasses in the forests also led to claims of leopard presence.
The Zanzibar leopard vs. the Servaline genet
Weier (2019) reported multiple alleged sightings by people living near the Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park. According to the researcher, villagers identified two types of Zanzibari leopards, the Kisutu and the Konge.
Local informers claimed that the konge was smaller than the kisutu and had a gray coat with black spots and stripes on the legs.
They also claimed the kisutu had a yellow coat with reddish or black spots.
Villagers said they recently sighted the konge variant but hadn’t seen the kisutu in about two decades. However, Weier noted that the locals might have confused another animal, the Servaline genet, with the leopard.
The Servaline genet (Genetta servalina), a species widely distributed in Central Africa, looks like a leopard. But it is much smaller and more slimly built. In the Kiswahili language of the Zanzibari, the animal was sometimes referred to as “uchui,” meaning “false leopard.”
Other species that natives could potentially confuse with the Zanzibar leopard are the civets (family Viverridae) and mongoose (family Herpestidae).
|Other Name/s||Cat of Zanzibar|
|Type||Big Cat, Extinct|
|Habitat||Countryside, Farmland, Forest, Jungle|
Where to find
https://www.scribd.com/doc/14070237/Killing-the-King-The-Demonization-and-Extermination-of-the-Zanzibar-Leopard, “Killing the king: The demonization and extermination of the Zanzibar leopard,” accessed on February 22, 2023.
https://www.extinctanimals.org/zanzibar-leopard.htm, “Extinct Animals: Zanzibar Leopards,” accessed on February 22, 2023.
https://digitalcollections.sit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4169&context=isp_collection, “Spotting the Zanzibar Leopard in Jozani Forest,” accessed on February 22, 2023.
https://unitedrepublicoftanzania.com/economy-of-tanzania/tourism-in-tanzania/, “Zanzibar Leopard – Taxonomy, History, Conservation & More,” accessed on February 22, 2023.
https://www.insideedition.com/zanzibar-leopard-captured-camera-despite-being-declared-extinct-43962, “Zanzibar Leopard Captured on Camera, Despite Being Declared Extinct,” accessed on February 22, 2023
Mounted specimen of a Zanzibar leopard native to the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar (Unguja). The species is believed extinct. Pic credit: Peter Maas/Wikimedia Commons
Last modified on May 16th, 2023 at 10:55 am