Leopards are more threatened than we thought

A first-of-its-kind study has revealed leopards have lost 75% of their historic range.

 

The leopard is an iconic conservation symbol and an animal that most people find fascinating. Sadly, these beautiful big cats have lost 75% of their historic range, according to new research.

Leopards have a secretive and elusive nature meaning the extent of their declines has previously been underestimated. They are extremely adaptable and it has long been thought they may not be severely threatened.

In this paper, all nine subspecies were studied across their entire range and found that leopards once occupied a staggering 35 million square kilometres (13.5 million square miles) spanning Africa, the Middle East and Asia. However, the picture today is quite different and leopards are now restricted to just 8.5 million square kilometres (3.3 millions square miles). This represents a loss of 75%.

Scientists spent three years comparing historic and current ranges, taking into account more than 1,300 sources. The overall consensus was that, while leopards may not yet be as threatened as some of the other big cats, the number of threats they are facing is increasing. Three subspecies have already been almost completely eradicated.

Lead author Andrew Jacobson, of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, University College London and the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, stated: “The leopard is a famously elusive animal, which is likely why it has taken so long to recognise its global decline. This study represents the first of its kind to assess the status of the leopard across the globe and all nine subspecies. Our results challenge the conventional assumption in many areas that leopards remain relatively abundant and not seriously threatened.”

The research also found that there are large expanses from which leopards have disappeared, such as regions in Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, China and Southeast Asia – with available habitat having decline by around 98%.

Philipp Henschel, co-author and Lion Program survey coordinator for Panthera, stated: “A severe blind spot has existed in the conservation of the leopard. In just the last 12 months, Panthera has discovered the status of the leopard in Southeast Asia is as perilous as the highly endangered tiger.”

Henschel continued: “The international conservation community must double down in support of initiatives protecting the species. Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard’s fate.”

Photograph: Malcolm Cerfonteyn

 

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Image from www.flickr.com/photos/stuutje