The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) recommended the temporary ban because it said leopard numbers could not be firmly established.
“There is uncertainty about the numbers and this is not a permanent ban, but we need more information to guide quotas,” John Donaldson, SANBI’s director of research, said.
Leopard is one of five game most desired by hunters, along with lion, rhino, buffalo and elephant. But given their secretive and nocturnal nature, the big cats are not easy to count.
SANBI said it drew its conclusions from studies and data mostly from protected areas and national parks, not private lands, leading the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) to say it gave an incomplete picture.
“There are lots of leopards on private land,” said PHASA chief executive Tharia Unwin, adding that PHASA was providing the government with leopard data from private lands.
South Africa has also suffered its worst drought on record and Unwin said this was good for leopard numbers, as predators typically thrive when the rains are poor, leaving much of their prey in a weakened and easy-to-kill state.
Unwin said it cost up to U$20,000 (£14,000) to shoot a leopard and several of PHASA’s members had to refund clients who had put down deposits for leopard hunts. Most foreign hunters who come to South Africa for such game are American.
Hunting all of the big five has been legal in South Africa since the 80s, when hunts for white rhino were resumed. South African environment minister Edna Molewa is a vocal advocate of the hunting industry, which the government estimates contributes 6.2bn rand ($410m) annually.
There was global outrage last year over the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe by a US dentist.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 13 Mar 2016.