Hunters are getting ready for the annual "leopard lotto" draw in KwaZulu-Natal, amid persistent controversy about the long-term future of South Africa's most cunning and elusive big-cat species.
Two years ago, South Africa doubled its hunting quota from 75 to 150 leopards a year, with permission from the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) conservation treaty members, who regulate trade in threatened or endangered species.
Doubling the hunting quota sparked fears that leopards would come under unsustainable pressure in some areas.
Reliable estimates of the country's total leopard population have been problematic because the stealthy nature of the animal makes them difficult to count.
The full allocation of 150 hunting permits is divided up across the country by the department of environmental affairs and tourism, and it believes that about 50 to 60 permits have been issued annually in Limpopo province in recent years.
But in KZN, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has only requested five of these hunting permits a year, for the past four years.
And surprisingly, while there have been more than a dozen official leopard hunts in KZN over the past year, only one leopard was killed during these hunts, according to Stoffel de Jager, Natural Resources Trade Manager at Ezemvelo.
De Jager said the five Cites permit allocations in KZN were split up into five geographic zones - Nyalazi, Magudu, Pongola, Vryheid and the Pembeni area outside Imfolozi Game Reserve.
In an attempt to make sure that hunters and land owners stood an equal chance to get the valued Cites permits (each worth nearly R40 000), Ezemvelo allocated them by holding a draw every year.
Applications for the 2007 permit hunts closed on Friday and the next draw will be held in Pietermaritzburg within the next few weeks.
The permits are valid for a month and if the winning permit holders do not succeed in killing a leopard within 30 days, the permit is passed on to hunters who come second and third in the draw, in each of the five geographic zones.
"There have been 13 official leopard hunts in KwaZulu-Natal in 2006 and only one was successful," said De Jager.
KwaZulu-Natal Hunting and Conservation Association President, Paul van Tubbergh, said he did not think many members of his recreation-based association would apply for permits - only local professional or foreign hunters could generally afford the cost of the Cites permits.
But Van Tubbergh said he was not surprised that only a single hunting permit had been filled in KZN in 2006.
"The leopard is possibly the ultimate predator. They can live very close to people, yet no one will know that they are there. I would think the chances are stacked about 70 percent in favour of the leopard when it comes to hunting them."
However, some conservation groups are, nevertheless, concerned about illegal hunts and legal loopholes that allow hunters to kill leopards under a separate system of "destruction permits", which are issued to land owners who complain about livestock losses.
There have been repeated complaints about illegal hunting in several parts of the province, particularly in the privately owned game ranches bordering the Phinda Game Reserve near Hluhluwe, where some ranchers have been accused of luring leopards on to their land using live goats or other animal carcasses.
But, according to De Jager, many of the loopholes have been closed.
"We decided in 2005 to tighten up on the issue of destruction permits for so-called 'problem animals'.
"We will still issue permits and if we are unable to capture the problem leopard, we make it clear to the land owner that our staff will come to shoot the leopard and that we will keep the skin.
"The word soon gets around and we end up getting very few requests."
Nevertheless, De Jager acknowledged that leopards were still hunted illegally in this province.
"We know that there are skelms out there and we are investigating a number of cases that involve overseas clients."
There had also been reports of hunters visiting Zimbabwe and smuggling leopard skins into South Africa, hidden in the inner rubber tubes of car tyres.
This article was originally published on page 6 of The Mercury