In the remote Russian far east, amid pine forests and long winters, a great cat may be beginning to make a recovery. A new survey estimates that the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) population has risen to as many as 50 individuals.
While this may not sound like much, it’s a far cry from the a population that may have fallen to just 25 animals. Sporting the heaviest coat of any leopard, the Amur leopard largely hunts hoofed animals, such as deer and boar, in a forest still ruled by the Siberian tiger.
“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 population,” WWF-Russia writes in a news release.
Counting Amur leopard tracks along snowy trails, scientists counted 23 individuals, leading to a total estimate of a minimum of 43-45 Amur leopard adults and 4-5 cubs in the wild. This is around a 50 percent increase from the last survey in 2007, which estimated 27-34 animals total. The researchers also found that the leopards were expanding and shifting their range as the population grew.
Most of the leopards are in Russia, however recent camera trap photos have shown a few individuals on the Chinese side of the border. Sightings have also been reported from North Korea.
“The Far Eastern leopard, the rarest cat on the Earth, is stepping back from the brink,” says Yury Darman, Director of the Amur branch of WWF-Russia. “We had started the recovery program 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 area with huge state support, which covers 360 thousand hectares of leopard habitats in Russia. It is necessary now to accelerate the creation of a Sino-Russian transboundary reserve that would unify six adjacent protected areas encompassing 6,000 square kilometers.”
Amur leopards are imperiled by poaching, habitat loss, and inbreeding. Poachers not only target the leopards, but also the prey base on which they depend. However, conservationists say there may be a new rising threat to the tiny population: Siberian (or Amur) tigers (Panthera tigris altaica).
Siberian tiger numbers are also increasing in the region, leading to clashes between the two predators. The world’s largest cat, Siberian tigers can weigh up to 6 times the Amur leopard and are easily a lethal match for the smaller cat. In fact, WWF-Russia reports that in the past few years they have found three Amur leopards killed by tigers. WWF-Russia says more research is needed on the relationship between these two great cats.
This article was written for Mongabay.com and reposted on Focusing on Wildlife.