The Amur leopard, considered to be one of the world’s most threatened big cats, is showing signs of a population recovery, according to the results of a new survey.
A majestic species, the Amur leopard sports the heaviest coat of any leopard, an attribute which enables this highly threatened cat to survive the long, harsh winters which envelop its pine forest habitat in the Russian Far East.
At its lowest point, it is thought that the Amur leopard population may have fallen to just 25 individuals, sparking grave concern that this incredible big cat could soon become extinct. However, results from a new survey indicate that the population may have risen to as many as 50 individuals, representing about a 50% increase from the last survey conducted in 2007.
“While we cannot help but be gladdened by this fact, it is no reason to let down our guard. 50 is still a critically small number for long term persistence of [the] population,” said WWF-Russia in a news release.
Camera traps and conservation
During the latest survey, researchers counted Amur leopard tracks along snowy trails to determine an estimated population size. Tracks from 23 individuals were counted, and this number was then extrapolated to estimate a minimum of 43-45 adult leopards and 4-5 cubs surviving in the wild.
The results of the survey also revealed that, as the population grows, Amur leopards are shifting and expanding their range. While most Amur leopards are known to be found in Russia, recent camera trap photos have shown that a few individuals now occur on the Chinese side of the border, and in addition sightings have been reported from North Korea.
With the promising news comes an urgent need to scale up conservation actions aimed at protecting the charismatic feline. “The Far Eastern leopard, the rarest cat on the Earth, is stepping back from the brink,” said Yury Darman, Director of the Amur branch of WWF-Russia. “We started the recovery programme in 2001 and now can be proud of almost 50 leopards in the wild. The most crucial role is played by the establishment of large unified protected areas with huge state support, which cover 360 thousand hectares of leopard habitat in Russia. It is necessary now to accelerate the creation of a Sino-Russian trans-boundary reserve that would unify six adjacent protected areas encompassing 6,000 square kilometres.”
New rising threat
The Amur leopard has long been at risk from a variety of threats, from habitat loss and inbreeding to poaching. Poachers not only target the leopards directly, but also the prey base on which the cats depend, including deer and boar. Yet a new rising threat to the Amur leopard is becoming evident: the Siberian tiger.
The Siberian or Amur tiger is also undergoing a population increase in the region. While the recovery of the populations of both the Amur leopard and the Siberian tiger is welcome news, it has resulted in clashes between the two powerful predators. As the world’s largest cat, weighing up to six times the weight of the Amur leopard, the Siberian tiger is a lethal opponent for the smaller species. In the last few years, WWF-Russia has reported that three Amur leopards have been killed by tigers, and the organisation is calling for more research to be conducted on the relationship between these two big cats.
Read more on this story at Mongabay.com – Amur leopard population rises to 50 animals, but at risk from tigers, poachers.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author