Analyses of leopard Panthera pardus prey choice reveal a strong preference for species weighing 10–40 kg. In the Congo Basin rainforests, species within this weight range are also targeted by bushmeat hunters, potentially leading to exploitative competition between leopards and hunters. We investigated leopard prey choice along a gradient of human disturbance, hypothesizing that leopards will exploit smaller prey where competition is strong, possibly resulting in reduced leopard densities at highly hunted sites. We determined leopard diet by means of scat analysis at four rainforest sites in central Gabon, which varied according to their distance from human settlements. Camera trap data collected at each of the four study sites revealed that human hunting intensity increased with proximity to settlements, while the abundance of potential leopard prey species decreased. We found no evidence of leopards at the site nearest to settlements. At the remaining sites, the number of scats collected, mean leopard prey weight and the proportion of large prey (>20 kg) in leopard diet increased with distance from settlements. Camera trap data demonstrated that leopard population density increased with distance from settlements, from 2.7 ± 0.94 leopards/100 km2 to 12.1 ± 5.11 leopards/100 km2. Our results document an increasing use of smaller prey species and a decrease in leopard density in proximity to settlements, supporting our hypothesis. Comparison of leopard diet with hunter return data revealed a high dietary niche overlap between leopards and hunters at sites situated at similar distances from settlements. Our results suggest that bushmeat hunting may precipitate the decline in leopard numbers through exploitative competition and that intensively hunted areas are unlikely to support resident leopard populations. Conserving the leopard in the Congo Basin will rely on effective protected areas and alternative land management strategies that promote regulated human hunting of leopard prey.
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