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ENDANGERED: The Amur leopard

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The leopard is the most widespread of all the big cats, yet one of its eight sub-species is on the brink of extinction: the critically endangered Amur leopard.

Otherwise known as the Far Eastern Leopard, it is characterised by its dense cream and black-ringed coat. They are solitary creatures, who are few and far between. It is thought that one single leopard can occupy territory spreading up to 150 square kilometres.

amur leopard

Image Credit: 3342/ 77 images via Pixabay

 

It is estimated that only around 100 of them remain in north-eastern China and Russia.

Unlike its African relatives, this rare subspecies has adapted well to freezing cold, snowy climates – its fur can measure 7.5 centimetres in length during winter and is much paler than other leopards, as a means of camouflage. Yet, during the hotter summers, it turns a more golden tone.

They are able to leap more than 19 feet horizontally and up to ten feet verticallyand can run as quickly as other leopards, at around 37 miles per hour.

Yet, impressive facts aside, they are the most endangered of all leopards - and their future is increasingly uncertain.

 

Why is it so endangered?

Simply put, humans are to blame.

One of their main threats is poaching: both of the leopard and of its prey. Russia, in particular, has a long-standing hunting culture - for food and sport - which is facilitated by easy-access forests.

The forests of Southwest Primorye – the home of most Amur leopards - are just a short distance from large cities, Primorski Krai-Vladivostok and Ussurisk, meaning that residents can easily hunt the leopard for its fur, which can be sold for high prices.

leopard fur-skins

Image Credit: Kurschner via Wikimedia Commons

In China, the Amur leopard suffers from insufficient prey – there is simply not enough to sustain both leopards and tigers. This is down to prey being excessively hunted and, additionally, too much timber cutting, which destroys natural habitats. Further measures must be established to limit poaching and manage logging if we want to see prey populations recovered, which is one of the first steps to get leopard numbers to rise.

Forest fires have also been responsible for destroying unfathomable amounts of the Amur leopard’s habitat. These fires rarely happen through natural causes, due to high rainfall and lush vegetation in the forest - there are annual human-caused fires which aim to create grasslands and savannahs. These man-made environments are not suitable for the Amur leopard.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Tigris Foundation and Tigis found that in the period from 1996 to 2003, 46% of potential leopard habitat in Russia burned at least once (3,426.2 km2), and between 12 and 22% of this territory burned each year, which highlights the scale of the problem.

Infrastructure development also has a damaging effect on the species and its habitat. With the range spanning over three countries, the species and its natural environment have suffered from the construction of railways, oil and gas pipelines and ports.

Although human activities are mainly to blame for the Amur leopard’s situation, there are also biological reasons for its critically endangered status.

The subspecies now has a lack of genetic variation due to its low population, which could lead to reproduction and health problems.

A study of three leopards by WCS found that there was: "initial evidence of potential inbreeding-associated health problems: all 3 individuals had significant heart murmurs, and one leopard had greater than 40% abnormal sperm production”

Amur leopard

Image Credit: Pixabay via Pexels

What is being done to help the species?

There are several conservation projects working to increase the population before it's too late.

The Russian Academy of Sciences has an on-going project that monitors the migration, location and reproduction of the existing Amur leopard population. It also carries out veterinary and zoological examinations on the leopards, and other species who live alongside them.

The information collected is vital as data on the species has been lacking in the past, and more research needs to be undertaken to understand how the animal adapts to its ever-changing environment – an understanding that is fundamental in ensuring the subspecies does not get eradicated.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also plays a huge part in the Amur leopard’s conservation. From 2001, the WWF lobbied for the establishment of the Land of the Leopard National Park: a protected area of nearly 650,000 acres, which includes all of the animal’s breeding areas. In 2012, this area was officially founded and approximately 60% of the Amur leopard population currently live there.

The WWF also supports anti-poaching efforts and aids governments in enforcing trade restrictions on Amur leopard productsIn 2007, the WWF and other conservationists succeeded in their mission to reroute a planned oil pipeline that would have disrupted the leopard’s habitat.

One other significant player in Amur leopard protection is the WildCats Conservation Alliance, which has funded many conservation projects over the last 32 years. As well as anti poaching, wildlife health monitoring and population monitoring projects, they support several conservation projects focusing on conflict mitigation, education and outreach.

All of these efforts have, so far, contributed to the rise in population over the last few decades. Yet, with only around 100 Amur leopards out there in the wild, there is still a long way to go. 

Lead Image Credit: Pixabay via Pexels




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