Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Of Leopards, Zanzibar and Witches

The Zanzibar Leopard in the museum in Stonetown.

When I lived in Zanzibar in the 1960s, I was told that leopards were still found in the island’s heartland. Zanzibar is a small island, off the eastern coast of Africa, measuring approximately 85 kms by 38 wide. It is tucked into the waist of Africa, south of the equator and right in the path of the great Indian Ocean monsoons.

The remnant thick wetland reserve was called Jozani Forest and it was there that the endangered leopard made a last stand. I visited Jozani Forest with my parents and remember the huge trees hanging with lianas and orchids. My mother loved orchids and we drove through the forest in the back of an open jeep looking for them. But of the secretive leopards, there was only talk. Nowadays tourists flock there to see the delightful endemic Red Colobus monkeys.

In the Kiswahili language, a leopard is ‘Chui’. Maybe this word sounds like the animal’s cough. The Zanzibar leopard is known as ‘Chui Konge’ and ‘Chui Kisutu’. Kisutu means a cloth used during a wedding – which might have some connection to the fate of leopards in the past.

The Zanzibar leopard is regarded as a regional sub-specie of the mainland leopard, separated as the seas rose at the end of the last glacial age, about twenty thousand years ago. Due to its small population it has suffered from what scientist, Ernst Mayr, called the ‘founder effect’. Isolation let to a sharp decrease in genetic diversity and certain traits were lost while others were emphasised. The Island’s leopard was smaller in size and its spots had evolved to be smaller and more widespread.

In colonial times, until 1963, the Zanzibar leopard was protected and could only be shot with a permit. You could hunt pigs as they were vermin, but not leopards. Meanwhile, it appears that leopards had a very bad reputation as agents of bad witches. They purportedly strengthened the witch’s powers. The belief was that the animals were captured and then used by these ‘leopard-keeper’ witches against their victims. The locals believed that they would be sent out on malevolent errands under cover of darkness. Magic and spirits were involved. And fear too of course. Stories of ‘white’, that is ‘good’ witches, and ‘black’ witches abound in the history of Zanzibar and the neighbouring island of Pemba.

The policy of leopard protection changed after the violent 1964 revolution that ousted the new independent government. A campaign was started by the revolutionary government to eradicate them. The campaign seems to have been closely allied to witch hunting. Leopards were now seen as worthless and a threat and were actively hunted even after President Karume’s assassination in 1972.

In the 1990s there was an effort to start a conservation program to rescue the leopard and once more it was protected. Too late! It was decided that the population was so small, if it existed at all, that its long term survival chances was non-existent. I cannot help thinking that even if they could conserve a few, it would be worthwhile. Surveys and camera trapping in 1997 and 2003 have not revealed any animals. Although reports of sightings continue in the south of the island, researchers seem to be ambivalent as to whether any animals remain.

A solitary stuffed Zanzibar leopard remains in the Palace Museum on the Island. It crouches down in a defensive position; fangs bared in defiance, half hidden in undergrowth. It would be satisfying to think that as such it survives in remote pockets of its tropical island home. Instead, I fear that this is another story of loss; loss of wilderness and the rich pantheon of nature.

The Zanzibar leopard has slipped away into extinction.

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