Driven to the very edge of extinction and facing a multitude of threats, the rarest leopard in the world is making a tentative comeback
Elusive and solitary
Few people have ever had the good fortune to see an Amur leopard in the wild. Their numbers currently stand at around 60 individuals, most of them prowling the province of Primorsky Krai in southeast Russia, with a few over the border of northeast China and potentially some leopards in North Korea. The amount of Amur leopards reached a shocking low of 30 individuals in 2007, but dedicated conservation work has helped that figure double in the last few years.
Like most other species of leopard, Amur leopards are solitary creatures and require a lot of space to hunt and raise young without competing with other leopards for food and territory. The species experienced a dramatic reduction of its Russian range during the 1970s, losing about 80 per cent of its territory and becoming highly fragmented. This in turn made it harder for individuals to breed successfully.
The temperate forest habitat – which can reach deadly lows of -25 degrees Celsius (-13 degrees Fahrenheit) – has set the Amur leopard apart from other Panthera pardus. It has slightly longer legs for navigating heavy, dense snowfall, and for camouflage its winter coat is a fairly light yellow with a gold tinge, paler than other leopard subspecies and much thicker in order to keep out the cold.
The Amur leopard does not pass the coldest winter months by hibernating, but rather follows herds of ungulates. Despite its vast range, an Amur leopard will not stray far from its prey – all year round, wherever sika and roe deer can be found, leopards are sure to be following. Male leopards have even been seen fighting viciously over territory that includes an area where deer husbandry is practised. As a crepuscular animal (most active during twilight) the leopard is able to utilise low light as cover when hunting. Leopard’s employ stalking tactics when on the hunt, aiming to get as close as possible before pouncing with their front paws extended and biting the back of the prey’s neck. Once they latch on, their prey doesn’t stand a chance. With the nightly hunt over, Amur leopards spend the daylight hours resting in caves or underbrush.
The Amur leopard spends much of its life alone. Leopard cubs are raised exclusively by their mother for the first two years of their life, before embarking on a journey to carve out their own territory. Young leopards become sexually mature up to a year after they gain their independence. Mature leopards may only meet each other when a female comes into season or on the rare occasion when some territories overlap. Despite this rather lonely existence, leopards who have never met may still recognise each other from scent markers left on hunting trails and migratory routes.
Habitat loss and poaching
Life in the Amur (Heilong) river basin in northeast Asia is full of hardship, for both animals and humans. What makes the Amur leopard so distinctive is the way that it has adapted to survive in its environment. Its wide, snowshoe-like paws and big bushy tail (which works like a furry scarf) help this cat to keep going in the cold conditions.
The region it inhabits is also home to some of the world’s largest expanses of intact temperate forest and it is also where the elusive Amur (Siberian) tiger can be found in the wild. The habitat supports an incredibly varied range of wildlife, but it is under threat from all sides.
Improper forest management, mining and logging all threaten the Amur leopard’s home. The effects of this human activity start at the bottom of the food chain, where the prey populations are too low to sustain more leopards. Prey populations can only recover once logging is managed sustainably and poaching of integral prey species, such as sika deer, is curtailed. Populations of Amur leopards and tigers can only recover once prey populations have regenerated.
The illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest threats to the leopard’s survival. Villages and farmland surround the forests, which means that access to the leopard’s habitat can be relatively easy. And poachers will not only seek Amur leopards for their spotted fur, but also take sika deer and roe deer for their meat and the money their carcasses can bring. In Russia in 1999, an undercover investigative team recovered two Amur leopard skins put up for sale – a female’s skin for $500 (£400) and a male’s skin for $1000 (£800). To combat this criminal activity and save the dwindling Amur population, the Russian government established the Land of the Leopard National Park in 2012.
The protected area comprises of 262,000 hectares (647,416 acres) of land in the southwest Primorsky province, covering approximately 60 per cent of the leopards’ habitat – enough space to ensure the survival of at least 50 individuals (including ten Amur tigers from China). The territory also includes integral leopard breeding grounds.
The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) is also hard at work conserving the rarest of wild cats. The Amur Tiger Conservation In Russia 2015 project aimed to keep tiger and prey populations stable by improving patrolling and reducing poaching. The ALTA are working with partner organisations to establish a second population of Amur leopards in their former range.