Leopard skin trade in Marrakech

Recently, Koen Cuyten of the Rewilding Foundation (RF) visited the city of Marrakech, Morocco. The heart of the city is the bustling Place Djemaa el Fna, the traditional meeting place for merchants and buyers from the Sous region, the Atlas Mountains and the south of the country. The square is located at the edge of the Souk district, the famous market streets of Marrakech. 

Several leopard skins for sale in the heart of the Souks. Photo (c) L. Saltzman

Marrakech is a unique place with its rich colors, scents and busy traders offering an unprecedented variety of spices, fabrics and local commodities for sale. Unfortunately, the amount of wildlife offered here for sale is staggering. Endangered species like Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus) and leopard (Panthera pardus spp.) are openly displayed and sold. These and many other species are listed on CITES appendices and IUCN Red Lists which prohibits or restricts their trade internationally. But as NGOs like the Moroccan Primate Conservation Foundation suspect, many of these species e.g. the macaques are illegally imported into Europe, mainly by tourists.

During an afternoon walk through the Souks, I found eight leopard skins displayed by vendors in and in front of their shops. One of the merchants explained that his skin was bougth from a Berber tradesman of the Central Atlas Mountains. Another merchant claimed his skin came from Niger (West Africa). Other carnivores and endangered or CITES protected animals on display included serval (Leptailurus serval), striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and African rock python (Python sebae).

Leopard skins and parts of other wildlife on display in Marrakech. Photo (c) K. Cuyten

The origin and age of the leopard skins on the market is not clear. Some of the skins may be from a Morroccan subpopulation. They may be older skins, but many of the skins looked quite fresh.

Leopards in North Africa were formely classified as the Barbary or North African leopard subspecies (Panthera pardus panthera), although recent genetic analysis indicates that it may in fact be the nominate leopard species of Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, a tiny relict population of leopards may persist in the Central Atlas Mountains and a few animals scattered in other remote parts of the Atlas ranges of North Africa, like in Algeria and possibly further east in Egypt. The status estimates vary from extinct to about 250 animals still roaming the wild.

Left: Vultures, leopard and python openly for sale. Right: Leopard skin dispayed in a drug store. Photo (c) K. Cuyten

Unfortunately, there have been no confirmed records of leopards in the expanse since 2002, although they are rumored to exist on the basis of some signs. The Atlas Mountains are however under heavy human pressure from livestock grazing, hunting, mining and wood cutting (pers. comm. Dick Klees). As the skins of the African rock pythons can only originate from Sub-Saharan Africa, the leopard skins might also originate (partly) from West- or Central Africa. The distinction of leopard skins from tropical and colder mountain regions of northern Africa can be respectively the short versus woolly pellage.

In 2013 Daniel Bergin and Vincent Nijman from the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group – Oxford Brookes University, conducted a seven week survey into the unregulated wildlife trade in Morocco. The amount of trade found was substantial. They observed 37 leopard skins in the open markets in total, 10 of which located in Marrakech. For further information and the article, which was published in the October 2014 issue of the TRAFFIC bulletin, ‘Open, Unregulated Trade in Wildlife in Morocco’s Markets‘ see here: http://www.traffic.org/traffic-bulletin/traffic_pub_bulletin_26_2.pdf pages 65 – 70.

Left: Another leopard skin in Marrakech (©Martin Antrobus). Right: Skins of leopard and several African rock python. (©Romaro). Note the difference in pellage (woollyness) of the two leopard skins.