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Amur Leopard: Almost Extinct

Country: Russian Federation, Location: Russia, China, North Korea (?)


The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), also known as the Manchurian leopard, is a wild feline predator native to the mountainous areas of the taiga as well as other temperate forests in Korea, Northeast China and the Russian Far East. It is one of the rarest felids in the world with an estimated 30 to 35 individuals remaining in the wild. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has deemed the Amur leopard critically endangered, meaning that it is considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

The Amur leopard lives in the forests of the Amur River Valley of Siberia and Manchuria, Korea. Like most big cats, the Amur leopard is habitually nocturnal and solitary. Its range overlaps that of the Siberian tigers. The Amur leopard however, avoids territory close to tigers to avoid competing for prey. It eats mostly roe (a type of deer), sika deer, wild boar, hares, badgers and small rodents.

The Amur leopard has some very distinguishing features. Its summer pelt is one inch long but in winter it is replaced by an almost three inch long pelt. Apart from its long winter coat, the Amur leopard is easily told apart from other leopard subspecies by its widely spaced rosettes with thick borders. It also has longer legs, probably an adaptation for walking through snow. Nimble-footed and strong, it carries and hides unfinished kills so that they are not taken by other predators. Their weight ranges from 65 to 155 pounds with the males weighing about fifty percent more than the females. They are also known to have light, blue-green eyes. The Amur leopard has been reported to leap more than 19 feet horizontally and more than 9 feet vertically.

In captivity, the lifespan of an Amur leopard is only about 17 years. There are approximately 300 Amur leopards in zoos in Europe, Russia and North America. These are part of breeding programs that try to ensure that the zoo populations do not become too inbred. Transfers of animals are made between zoos so that different individuals can breed together to produce cubs with higher genetic variation. It is important to maintain zoo populations of the Amur leopard with a reasonable level of genetic variation because it is likely that some individuals from zoos will be reintroduced into the wild in the future.

Reason they are engangered

Habitat loss and fragmentation

It is estimated that between 1970-1983, the Amur leopard lost an astonishing 80% of its former territory. Indiscriminate logging, forest fires and land conversion for farming are the main causes. Still all is not lost. Even now large tracts of forest, which are ideal leopard habitat exist. If these areas can be protected from unsustainable logging, rampant forest fires and poaching of wildlife, the chance exists to increase the population of the subspecies in the wild.

Prey scarcity

There are still large tracts of suitable habitat left in China, but the prey base in these forests is insufficient to sustain populations of leopards and tigers. Prey populations will recover if the use of the forests by the local population is regulated and if measures are taken to limit the poaching of ungulates. For the Amur leopard to survive for the long term, it needs to repopulate its former range. But for that to happen, prey populations need to recover first.

Poaching and illegal trade

The Amur leopard is poached largely for its beautiful, spotted fur. In 1999, an undercover investigation team recovered a female and a male Amur leopard skin, which were being sold for US$ 500 and US$ 1,000 respectively, in the village of Barabash, not far from the Kedrovaya Pad reserve. This suggests that there is a market for such products within the locality itself. Agriculture and villages surround the forests where the leopards live. As a result the forests are relatively accessible, making poaching a bigger problem than elsewhere. Not only for the leopards themselves, but also for important prey species, such as roe deer, sika deer and hare, which are hunted by the villagers both for food and hard cash.

Conflict with humans

Amur leopards are particularly vulnerable because of their preference for deer, a natural predatory preference but dangerous in the Russian Far East due to direct human involvement: farmers in the Russian Far East raise deer for human consumption, and to produce antlers for the Asian medicine market. In absence of wild prey, the leopards often venture into the deer farms in search for food. Owners of these farms are quick to protect their investment by eliminating leopards attacking their stock. Presently, the leopard's most immediate threat comes from such retaliatory or preventive killing.

Vulnerable population size and inbreeding

Additionally, the Amur leopard is threatened by the extremely small wild population size, which makes them vulnerable to "catastrophes" such as fire or disease, to chance variation in birth and death rates and sex ratios (e.g., all cubs born for two years might be male), and to inbreeding depression. Father-daughter and sibling matings have been observed and it is possible that this may lead to genetic problems including reduced fertility. Such matings do of course occur naturally to a certain extent in large cat populations, but in a very small population there is no possibility of subsequent outbreeding. Studies have shown that the number of cubs per adult female fell to 1 in 1991 from 1.9 in 1973.

How you can help

You can help the cause of the Amur Leopard in many different ways.

1. Donate money or time to the cause. You can visit any of the links provided and they will tell you how you can donate money or time to help in the efforts to save the Amur Leopard.

2. Spread the word. Let's not let these animals dwindle away to extinction in the wild, just because no one really hears much about them. Help bring attention to their plight by spreading the word about them.

3. Help save the forest vital to their habitat. You can do this by supporting the people that are working to save their habitat in any way you can.

4. Support lobbying for improved conservation policies and regulations.

Don't let their footprints fade away!

Further Reading

  • Almost Gone: The World's Rarest Animals, Steve Jenkins
Submitted by Anarchy2010 on Dec 6, 2010