A Wild Cat Comeback: Leopards and Lions Begin Rebound in Zambia’s Kafue National Park After Half-Century of Poaching

Male African Lion (Panthera leo) basking in the sun at Kafue National Park
© Sebastian Kennerknecht

Media contact: Susie Weller Sheppard, sweller@panthera.org, 347-446-9904.

Counter-poaching operations and innovative technological advances, including ‘vulture sentinels,’ help triple leopard density and increase lion numbers in Zambia

New York, NY - In a remarkable comeback after enduring half a century of poaching, leopard and lion populations have begun rebounding in Africa’s third-largest national park, according to a new report from Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, and partners.

Four years of rigorous counter-poaching operations employing game-changing conservation technologies, including the use of SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) and EarthRanger across Zambia’s Kafue National Park (KNP) have helped triple the leopard density in southern Kafue and increase and stabilize leopard and lion populations across the Park. Daily coordinated operations were fully led by Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), with support from Panthera, the North Carolina Zoo and multiple partners.

Utilizing nearly a thousand camera trap stations across the reserve, scientists found leopard densities in southern KNP increased threefold — from about 1.5 leopards in 2019 to approximately 4.4 leopards per 100 km2 in 2022. Leopard densities stabilized in northern Kafue and more than doubled in central KNP. Lion densities also stabilized in northern KNP, increased in southern Kafue and nearly doubled in central KNP.

Scientists are now pointing to Kafue as a cost-effective model for unfenced wildlife conservation in sub-Saharan Africa, due in large part to an unprecedented alliance of organizations committed to constant law enforcement coordination and scientific accountability via year-over-year population monitoring. Law enforcement activities in Kafue from 2018 to mid-2022 were implemented at a significantly reduced annual cost, with $211 per km2 spent in the peak year (2021) compared to the $1,000-2,000 per km2  typically referenced for unfenced wildlife protection efforts.

The leadership of Zambia’s DNPW, in requiring maximum collaboration amongst partners, was absolutely pivotal to this momentous win for the country’s wild cats. 

Panthera and WildCRU Lion Program Director, Dr. Andy Loveridge, stated, “Long known as one of Africa’s ‘crown jewels’ thanks to its magnificent biodiversity, Kafue National Park’s lion and leopard populations  were diminished by more than a half-century of poaching. In just four short years, however, these wild cats have started to make an incredible comeback as a result of this uniquely collaborative conservation program steered by Zambia’s DNPW. This news represents the beginning of an epic victory for Kafue’s ‘Kings and Queens,’ and provides a beacon of hope for leopards and lions across southern Africa.”

The effective utilization of innovative technology — including a combination of SMART and EarthRanger — enabled rangers to surveil wide areas of KNP more accurately and analyze data at a faster rate to stay one step ahead of poachers, including visually tracking patrol routes, poacher activity and collared wildlife. Poisoning sites were identified by innovative use of tagged vultures. In fixing satellite tags to 19 African vultures, scientists from the North Carolina Zoo and Panthera trialed how vultures can help identify illegal activities like poisoning, which threaten vultures and carnivores alike.

Effective prosecution was also critical to the turnaround in KNP, with 40 teams patrolling some 211,000 km in 2021, resulting in 322 apprehensions. While many countries fail to deter and prosecute poaching crimes, support from Zambia’s Wildlife Crime Prevention (WCP) has aided DNPW and the National Prosecution Authority in achieving an 85 percent conviction rate for offenses involving lion or leopard parts — with 78 percent receiving a custodial sentence for an average of 5.1 years around Kafue and beyond.

In partnership with the Barotse Royal Establishment of the Lozi People, Panthera’s Saving Spots project also made a significant contribution to helping reduce hunting of wild cats in Kafue through the distribution of synthetic Heritage Furs replacing garments made of authentic leopard and lion skins. At a recent gathering, almost 70 percent of participants wore synthetic Heritage Furs, indicating a culturally-sensitive conservation transformation in just 4 years.

Panthera KAZA Program Director, Dr. Kim Young-Overton, stated, “When our support began in Kafue, ‘tripod wildlife,’ including wild cats who had lost limbs to poacher’s snares, were all too common. Thanks to a constellation of initiatives, from high-tech law enforcement patrols to community adoption of synthetic Heritage Furs, the illegal tools wiping out wildlife are being replaced by new lion and leopard life. With the support of both the local and global community, we seek to establish countless generations of Kafue’s cats.”

At roughly 22,400 km2, KNP sits within the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), the largest terrestrial conservation landscape in the world spanning five countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) that encompass some 520,000 km2 and 36 protected areas that stretch across a region the size of France.

Panthera President and CEO, Dr. Frederic Launay, stated, “Achieving wildlife recovery across massive, unfenced parks and protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa has long been an aspirational, but elusive, objective to conserve biodiversity. The success story of Kafue National Park confirms that strong leadership from national wildlife authorities and a collaborative approach can stretch conservation dollars to achieve global conservation goals at scale.”

About Panthera
Panthera, founded in 2006, is devoted exclusively to preserving wild cats and their critical role in the world’s ecosystems. Panthera’s team of leading biologists, law enforcement experts and wild cat advocates develop innovative strategies based on the best available science to protect cheetahs, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, snow leopards, tigers and the 33 small cat species and their vast landscapes. In 39 countries around the world, Panthera works with a wide variety of stakeholders to reduce or eliminate the most pressing threats to wild cats—securing their future, and ours.