A critically endangered beauty
The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), a leopard subspecies also known as the Far Eastern leopard, is one of the most beautiful animals in the world. Its distinct coat is decorated with widely spaced rosettes encircled by dark unbroken rings. In addition to this gorgeous pattern, the pelt is dynamic and functional throughout the year. In the summer, the hairs are shorter, about 2.5 cm long to keep the leopard cool; in the winter, they could grow up to 7 cm long to keep it warm. Moreover, as if it were reflecting the seasonality, the fur is a reddish-yellow color during the warmer seasons and gradually turns into a lighter color as the weather gets colder. Within its home range, these leopards prefer a solitary, nocturnal lifestyle. The historical range of the Amur leopard extended across Northeast China, the Korean peninsula, and the southern third of Primorsky Krai, Russia. Currently, however, only a thin sliver of habitat in Southwestern Primorsky Krai, along the Chinese border remains. This scaling back of its home range along with negative human interactions have placed Amur leopard on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered and Appendix I on the CITES. Quantitatively, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had estimated that roughly 70 adult Amur leopards were in the wild earlier. But, a comprehensive study that was completed earlier this year reported fewer than 60 Amur leopards alive. Looking at these numbers, wouldn’t you agree that Amur leopards are teetering on the brink of extinction?
So far, Amur leopard has suffered a tremendous loss of home range. A research published a few months ago, indicates that more than 95% Amur leopard habitat has been lost. Many factors have led to the reduction the habitat to such an alarming level. First, these leopards were forced to abandon some of their ranges because of insufficient food supply. For quite some time, their favorite prey item, ungulate, has been over-hunted for money, pushing those starving leopards to leave their ranges. Secondly, massive man-made fires have changed many forests into grasslands and savannas, which are not suitable for these leopards. This type of fires is one of the major threats to Amur leopard. The motive for burning these forests is to stimulate the growth of some ferns that are used in common Chinese and Russian dishes. Thirdly, the logging industries have been aggressively moving into some of their habitats. There, over-harvesting of timber and illegal logging are common practices. Fourthly, ongoing development projects initiated by government or private corporations further degraded their habitats into an uninhabitable state. These projects include building gas/oil pipeline, expanding roads, upgrading railways, constructing electricity grids, and extracting minerals/coal on their habitats, resulting in their disastrous fragmentation. Now you see how these leopards lost nearly all habitats.
Not humans’ best friends
But, habitat loss only explains part of severe reduction of Amur leopard in the wild. For years, Amur leopard has been the innocent victim of humans’ greed. Hunters poach them for a variety of reasons. The most obvious reason for killing these animals is for their stunning fur, which has a high demand in luxury goods industry. Such humans’ aggression cannot be illustrated any better than a case previously under investigation, in which a complete coat of an adult Amur leopard was found in a private car (see the photo). In some other cases, humans also took their bones, which are sold in Asian medicine markets, and the flesh, which later becomes delicacy at restaurants and galas. Another reason for hunters to eliminate these leopards is to minimize the competition or deer and wild boar, which, unfortunately, have conflicting roles of being these leopard’s favorite food items and being the hunters’ profitable targets. Whether they are legally or illegally slaughtered, their survival is further jeopardized by the lack of political commitments. In Russia, where most of the remaining ranges are located, the administrators enforced a series of laws that left room for unlawful human activities against these leopards. To make matters worse, they also revoked certain legislation and programs that meant to protect these animals. One of the examples that deeply affects Amur leopards is that Russia government abolished the independent State Committee for Nature Conservation, which directly worked towards nature conservation including the conservation of these leopards. Another huge setback for the Amur Leopard was the enforcement of a new legislation governing the duties of the inspectors of private hunting leases. Under this new law, those inspectors could no longer issue citations for people hunting illegally. In a country where Amur leopard has been so overwhelmingly poached, can you imagine the magnitude of the damage that these new laws have done to these precious animals?
Light at the end of the tunnel
Fortunately, thanks to the establishment of Land of the Leopard National Park in Russia in 2012, a result of those enthusiastic conservationists’ lobbying. The Amur leopard population has more than doubled from the low in 2007. Such a strong rebound in Amur leopard numbers is very encouraging for those people, who believe that even the most critically endangered species can recover if humans protect their habitat and work together on conserving them. Best of all, since the inception of this national park, it has become the primary force for leopard protection and research. Meanwhile, in China, another country where Amur leopard ranges still exist, researchers have been tirelessly developing ecological models to assess the causes that limit the spatial distribution of Amur leopard. Last year, a group of Chinese scientists have concluded that increasing the presence of these leopards’ prey and decreasing the tiger occurrence would improve the survival rate of Amur leopard. More importantly, they have identified habitat patches that can support about 195 individuals. Thus, if conservation efforts continue to generate successful outcomes, there is space to accommodate new additions. Their findings have helped foster China government’s proposal for a huge national park for Amur tigers and leopards. Hurrah!
“Won’t you please, please help me,” Amur leopard sings. (“Help!” Lyrics by the Beatles)
Despite the achievements of conservation organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Amur Leopard & Tiger Alliance (ALTA), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Russia, it is going to take people around the world to lend a helping hand to this splendid species. A person may not have the expertise in stopping the poaching and trade of these animals, monitoring their populations, or recommending strategy to protect their habitats, like those professionals of conservation organizations and research institutions do, but he/she can contribute to the rescue efforts of these leopards by making symbolic Amur leopard donations to help save this world’s rarest cat and/or assist those organizations in their work with other means. Let’s all pitch in to ward off the potential Amur leopard extinction!