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Tracing the southern African origins of illegal leopard skins reveals transnational trade for traditional use

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posted on 05.10.2020, 07:06 by Vincent Naude, Guy Balme, M. Justin O'Riain, Vivienne L. Williams, Jessica J. Tyrell, Nolwazi S. Mbongwa, Gareth Whittington-Jones, Tristan Dickerson, Peter G.R. Coals, Luke T.B. Hunter, Jacqueline M. Bishop
Illegal wildlife trade monitoring is significantly improved when the geographic origins of traded products can be determined and areas requiring targeted protection identified. Using DNA-based assignment tests, we investigated the illegal leopard skin trade for traditional use in South Africa. We created a spatially-explicit genetic reference database for leopards across southern Africa using 1,452 samples of known origin and thereby assigned the geographic origins of 237 samples from three distinct illegal trade sources. Validation and sensitivity analyses demonstrated confident spatial assignment across the region as all reference samples were reassigned to ≤225 km of known origin. Our results suggest that illegal leopard skin trade for traditional use in South Africa is transnational and likely syndicated, with poaching ‘hotspots’ identified in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mozambique. Traditional markets have a more localised genetic footprint than religious gatherings. All trade sources were significantly male-biased while items traded in traditional markets also represent non-leopard felid species being sold as leopard products. Methods developed here can identify the regional and local origins of seized illegal wildlife products. In doing so, our findings support trade route monitoring and the redirection of resource-limited anti-poaching efforts towards targeted intervention, while leveraging political support for increased regional enforcement.


United States Fish and Wildlife Services

UK Aid - Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund

Peace Parks Foundation


Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa

National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant #109303)

Africa Oxford (AfOx) Visiting Fellowship Program



Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town