The fight to save the Amur Leopard

These elusive and secretive felines are one of the most threatened of all the big cats and are on the brink of extinction

Leopards can be split into nine distinct subspecies depending on their region. On the whole, they are rapidly decreasing around the world but few subspecies are quite as endangered as the Amur leopard. Only 100 years ago, they occupied the Russian Far East, northeastern China, and the whole of the Korean peninsula. Today, there are just 25-40 animals in the southern tip of the Russian Far East. They are the only leopards adapted to living in snowy cold climates (snow leopards aren’t true leopards). They have thick fur to insulate them from the biting winds, long limbs and wide paws to act as snowshoes in the cold snow, and a long bushy tail that is extremely useful, not only for balance, but as a scarf when they curl up and wrap it around themselves. The Amur leopard is just one stop short of being extinct in the wild. A survey in 2007 revealed just 14-20 adults and five-to-six cubs in the Primorye region of Russia. Since the listing increased to Critically Endangered in 1996, the population has been relatively stable but conservation efforts so far have failed to increase numbers.

gettyimages-521025452_shy-amur-leopard
Amur leopards are known for their incredibly shy nature, usually preferring to stay hidden

Lonely leopards

Amur leopards are crepuscular, sleeping during the day and waking in the evening, spending the frosty nights roaming the land to stalk their prey. They are excellent hunters and once they have taken down a wild boar or a deer, they skulk off dragging their meal with them to eat in peace. Their tongues are covered with many small rasps or hooks, known as denticles, which help them strip meat from bone when eating. They don’t share food. In fact, they share nothing with other animals, leading solitary lives like most other cats. The only time they have contact with other leopards is during the breeding season, when a mother is raising her cubs, or when they need to see other leopards off their territory.  Amur leopards live in the fiercely harsh and bitterly cold mountains. It would be easy to think such a remote environment would be left untouched by humans but you would be wrong. At most there are 40 individuals remaining, meaning every single leopard is important. In Russia, they have lost 80 per cent of their habitat and the fight to save them is ongoing.

They are excellent hunters and once they have taken down a wild boar or a deer, they skulk off dragging their meal with them to eat in peace.

gettyimages-523758008_snarling-amur-leaopard-copy
During mating season, there may be several males fighting and following a female at any given time

The struggle is real

Amur leopards face a number of threats, which have contributed to their endangered status. Poaching, as is the usual cause of many animal declines, is generally considered to be the main threat to their survival. The trade in Amur leopard products is illegal, which means it can be difficult to quantify, but we know it is happening as skins are sometimes confiscated in Russia and China. Shooting for pelts is largely carried out by unqualified hunters using unregistered guns, meaning that there is a greater chance of suffering to the animal and there is more likely to be an unsustainable harvest in the long-term. Deliberate fires and burning of habitat is also a key threat. Farmers habitually set fire to fields, a known practice to increase the quality of soil for crops, but over an extended period of time this has encouraged large expanses of land to transform into open savannah, with grasses and scrub that leopards tend to steer clear of due to the low density of prey. Despite the bleak outlook, there are people working hard to prevent further losses; rangers are stationed in lodges scattered across the land and if they see a fire or hear gunshots they spring to action. In addition, there is an ever-looming threat of development in the Primorye area. A proposal to build an oil pipeline through the area has been shelved, for now. Another plan for the construction of an open pit coal mine was only abandoned after increasing publicity and pressure from environmentalists. Although these projects did not go ahead they have not been considered conservation successes. The desire to develop the leopard’s habitat for commercial gain still exists. It is now more important than ever for conservationists to stay on top of what is happening in the area and continue lobbying policy makers, company directors, and politicians to preserve the habitat, so that future Amur leopards have a chance of survival.

Poaching, as is the usual cause of many animal declines, is generally considered to be the main threat to their survival

pr_working-in-the-field

On the front line with Amur Leopards

John Lewis is a vet for Wildlife Vets International (WVI)

Can you tell us more about your work?

WVI was invited to be part of a multidisciplinary team trapping and gathering biomedical data from the remaining wild Amur leopards. As there were only about 35 leopards in 20,000 square kilometres (7,722 square miles) of taiga forest, they were difficult to find. During six years of trapping, we only caught leopards on seven occasions, with one male being caught three times in consecutive years. As well as trapping, I was able to mentor a Russian wildlife vet and give lectures to both veterinary and biology students, as there is little knowledge of wildlife disease in the Russian Far East. With reintroduction into the wild in mind, our partners in Russia have collected health data from other wild and domestic carnivore species in the area, and from species that leopards would prey on. WVI has analysed the health of the captive Amur leopard population that would provide young leopards for the reintroduction project. Over a number of years we’ve built up a good working knowledge of the disease issues likely to affect a reintroduction project. The threat from disease to both the current and proposed reintroduced second population has been summarised in the Disease Risk Assessment for the Reintroduction of the Amur Leopard, and mitigation strategies have been identified to prevent disease having a major negative effect on the programme. This document is now incorporated into the government approved Reintroduction Plan for the species.

What are they key threats facing the Amur leopard?

Poaching of the leopards and their prey remains the most immediate threat to Amur leopards. In addition, leopard habitat is being altered by some development in the area and forest fires set for agricultural purposes. Disease can undermine even the best of conservation efforts. Fortunately, Amur leopards are present in the wild at very low densities, which tends to reduce the extent and rate of disease spread. Even so, emerging viral threats, such as that posed by Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), could affect the viability of the wild Amur leopard population, as it appears to be doing in the case of the Amur tiger. The first fatal case of CDV infection in a wild Amur leopard has already been reported and we must be extremely vigilant for others.

Do they suffer any genetic problems due to the small number of animals left? 

The Amur leopard population remains very low at around 40 individuals, and therefore it would not be surprising to find problems arising from inbreeding. Certainly, the wild population has a narrower genetic base than captive Amur leopards in European zoos, but no obvious problems that can be related to inbreeding have yet been identified in the wild. Having said that, we do not know whether there are more subtle effects of inbreeding yet to be identified. Amur leopards have been camera-trapped on rare occasions on the Chinese side of the border, but whether they are breeding there has yet to be determined.

Is it too late to save the species?

Definitely not. The wild population has been stable and even increasing slightly for a number of years, and we think that some individuals are moving between Russia and adjacent areas of China. However, the numbers are still critically low. A reintroduced population could go a long way to securing this species. A successful reintroduction of the Amur leopard will take many years and no doubt suffer setbacks. It is an expensive process and in some ways a risky one, but in combination with habitat protection, it might just work! Support WVI and the ALTA partners by sharing our stories, inspiring others and by fund raising to help support our ongoing conservation work. For more information visit www.WildlifeVetsInternational.org  and www.ALTAconservation.org.

Other organisations fighting to save the Amur Leopard

Alliance (ALTA)

ALTA is a coalition comprised of 15 international and Russian NGOs working towards conserving the Amur leopard population. They plan to work with partner organisations to establish a second population of Amur leopards in their former range, where they are no longer found, by planning and creating a reserve. The European and Russian zoo conservation breeding programme now has over 200 captive Amur leopards acting as a safety-net population, which they are working towards releasing back into the wild at some point in the future.

WWF

Looking after Amur leopards is only half the battle. To ensure their long-term survival you also have to look after their depleting habitat and their prey. This is the strategy the WWF has adopted to conserve the big cats for the future. WWF has helped to significantly increase populations of wild boar and deer in the leopard’s range, and has worked with local communities to increase the area of protected land used as habitat. By working with TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring organisation) they are also helping to crack down on illegal Amur leopard products and reducing demand for such products through education.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Working with ALTA, the WCS have been monitoring Amur leopards in Russia using modern technology such as camera traps. The cameras are set up in various locations where leopards are suspected to travel through and are triggered whenever they sense any movement, capturing an image. Camera trapping allows the organisation to identify individual leopards by looking at their distinctive coat patterns, and it has allowed WCS to build up a data set to spot trends throughout the years and estimate the population density. In 2014 the project was extended to cover a wider area, and today WCS are carefully monitoring around 75 per cent of all Amur leopard habitat in Russia.

 World of Animals issue 39 is available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of World of Animals magazine, make sure you subscribe today!