It was supposed that leopard was been extirpated in the Yankari Game Reserve, a savannah woodland habitat in the North Western of Nigeria, but recently camera traps captured some amazing images of it, giving hope for the species in the most human-populated country of Central – Eastern Africa. Andrew Dunn works for WCS in Nigeria and comments on the good news with cautious optimism: “We just assumed that leopard was extinct from that game reserve, Yankari, but it wasn’t in all of the country. In Yankari the last sighting has been in 1986. It’s a good news for leopard but it is not surprising because it’s very adaptable, nocturnal, and I think it has been present in Yankari all the time”. Hunting is declined recently in this part of the country, but it was high for long time (leopard skin is still required in the South for ceremonies and cultural items); here like in many other African country the plight of cats is the catastrophic loss of suitable habitat. In 2016 the global assessment for leopard published on PeerJ revealed that leopard (considering all the subspecies) now occupies only 25-37% of its historic range (from 1750 onwards); and only 3 subspecies (among them, Panthera pardus that lives in Yankari) account for 97% of the extant home-range.
“In Nigeria human population is booming and so there’s not lot of wildlife outside protected areas, the bushmeat”, and the subsequent prey depletion for carnivores, “is a huge iusse like in the most Central African countries; but, more important, Yankari is isolated, it is only a green island. Farms and maize crops come to the edge of the reserve; I don’t know how many leopards are now in, but if well protected they can improve. Yankari is large enough to support a viable population in the coming decades”. In Yankari survive also a small number of lions (maybe 25), spotted and striped hyena, serval and caracal.
Conservation is not easy in Nigeria. The country has an enormous human population and national parks are underfunded. Nigeria has a reputation of rich nation and, Andrew Dunn says, has not the financial support for conservation of, for instance, Cameroon: “it’s a struggle, that’s why we have small stories of success”. But the comeback of leopard might change how common people look at wildlife. Middle class has more opportunities to watch documentaries on natural world and National Geographic Channel is an option for many: for the first time the leopard of Yankari appeared on social media. In the future, the big issue for still-wild ecosystems, and Yankary too, is the increasing number of livestock. According to Dunn, fences could be a reasonable solution to protect wildlife and keep cows outside the game reserve. But for Nigeria, the Half Earth vision is already too bold.
(photos: thanks to Andrew Dunn)