It’s rare when a species goes extinct and people are glad to see it go. While that might be the case if the species is a mosquito or a rat, big cats are generally missed when gone. That wasn’t the case 25 years ago with the Zanzibar leopard. When they were declared extinct in the mid-1990s, residents of Unguja Island in the Zanzibar archipelago of Tanzania, where the last one was seen, were allegedly thrilled by its demise. Why? They believed local folk tales of witches and witch doctors keeping the carnivorous cats to harass the villages. Were witches involved in the mysterious reappearance of the evil Zanzibar leopards?
Here’s a better question … would you watch a show called “Extinct or Alive” if it never found any extinct animals alive? It seems a little suspicious that the first episode of this new series on Animal Planet hits a lead-off home run when host, wildlife adventurer and biologist Forrest Galante hangs a butcher shop display case of raw meat from trees, sets up a night-vision camera and gives an expletive-filled exclamation when the video captures a Zanzibar leopard.
Like many animals on Unguja or Zanzibar, the largest of the Zanzibar archipelago islands, researchers believe the Zanzibar leopard (originally named Panthera pardus adersi) is a descendant of the mainland African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) which has been isolated there since at least the end of the Ice Age, allowing it to evolve into a smaller cat with more leopard-ish rosette markings that have become solid spots.
While Zanzibar leopards and Zanzibaris lived together as well as humans and big cats can, that changed with the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution when the island, which had been conquered and ruled by many countries, finally threw off the last vestiges of British rule and became part of Tanzania. As told in the study “Killing the king: The demonization and extermination of the Zanzibar leopard,” written by researchers Martin Walsh and Helle Goldman, the forced modernization of native cultures and customs included witch hunts and the killing of their feared killer cats, the Zanzibar leopards. It took just 30 years to rid the island of the animals.
Or did it? A sighting was reported in 2017, leading to the island being chosen as one of the locations for “Extinct or Alive.”
“I absolutely lost my mind at the fact that we had accomplished the impossible, and we had found an extinct animal, something the world had written up as gone forever. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Everything I’ve worked on for years and years came into fruition in one second.”
Galante told Inside Edition that he saw the cat while reviewing two weeks’ worth of video. To his credit, Galante knows that one video is not proof. He points out that there are rumors that the witch doctors, who continue to operate on the island, brought mainland African leopards to Zanzibar to maintain their fearful hold over the locals. However, close analysis of the video show this cat is smaller and has more solid spots like the Zanzibar leopards had … or have. Although the show has moved on to hunt for other extinct species, Galante says his team will work with park rangers in locating and testing DNA samples.
While the Zanzibar leopard was/is not evil, the reasons for its near extinction – development, folklore and fear – are. Let’s hope the Zanzibaris – and people in other areas where “Extinct or Alive” may find extinct species alive – replace greed and ignorance with education and conservation.
Welcome back, Zanzibar leopards!