Ten times more endangered than the Amur Tiger, these beautiful Cats have been cornered by human pressures into one remaining area – the forests of southwest Primorsky Kraj. Most leopards stalk and chase the grounds of Africa with their large stocky tails and daggered claws – where populations are moderately stable and warm environments deliver prey, habitat and opportunities. But the Amur leopard is like no other – it’s a rare leopard subspecies that uniquely takes home in temperate forests and thrives through the harsh winters that comes with the Far East of Russia year after year. This wild leopard is impressively adapted to mountain areas, harsh temperatures, performs cautious footwork across branches and lives where no other leopard has dared to try.
Out of the nine subspecies of leopards, the Amur is by far one of the most enchanting. Displaying the strongest divergence in coat pattern – a wash of cream colours and large spaced rosettes with thick, black rings and darkened centres makes them absolutely stunning in appearance. This pelt is 1 inch thick, and in the winter, is replaced by 3 inches– providing insulation and warmth against Russia’s cold winters.
Stooping to a mere 30- 35 individuals remaining in the wild the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has declared the Amur leopard has critically endangered – meaning that this species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. But why are such extraordinary leopards facing such a deadly decline?
The troubles of the Amur leopard swept by almost unheard of until zoos began to take the matter into their own hands. Using this opportunity increased the numbers of breeding Amur Leopards in captivity for conservation purposes and to raise awareness during the 1990’s. Realising the importance of keeping the Amur’s integrity alive resulted in the development of the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA). Now across several documentaries and magazines worldwide, discusses the problems that these leopards face and the deep concern of extinction within their future.
The number of Amur leopards has mainly been picked on by poachers. Many are local villagers that struggle for income so trap and hunt these leopards to make a good profit from their lush and desirable furs. Despite the devastation, when options are limited this is one of the few opportunities of generating income for food and the family.
Rich Russians are also behind poaching, using it as a sport, but in this case the main threat doesn’t lie directly with poaching the Amur leopard itself. Firstly the Amur leopard is currently so low in numbers that it is becoming commercially extinct – meaning that the time and effort spent trying to catch one is often worthless. Secondly, it’s the poaching of the leopard’s prey which is causing most harm. Russian hunters are killing more deer than officially allowed, lowering the leopard’s main food resource.
The biodiversity conservation of Russia has received little support from law enforcements due to a number of government measures, leaving doors open to exploiting native species and lack of protection on critically endangered species. Current negative developments since 2000 include:
The anti-poaching organisation Inspection Tiger (IT) that focuses on providing protection for Amur leopards, lost its law enforcement rights from 2000 – 2005.
During 2003-2004 inspectors of private hunting leases also lost their law enforcement rights due to changes in administrative legislation. This means they can no longer draw up citations for violations of hunting regulations – resulting in no effective protection of their hunting grounds. These hunting leases comprise 50% of the Amur leopard’s habitat so without protection can lose even more species to poachers.
Another result of the 2003 -2004 changes in administrative legislation resulted in state inspectors requiring support from civilian witnesses. Without this supporting witness statement, successful prosecution of violators are very difficult to obtain. This now encourages and provides poachers with confidence knowing they have a better chance of getting away with exploiting species. It’s also a struggle to gain a civilian witness as most feel intimidate and remain quiet to avoid future conflict.
The number of state inspectors defending native species of forests was reduced dramatically in 2007.
As the wild Amur population become more and more cornered into remote habitats, alongside with habitat fragmentation, there is a great chance this has caused isolation of populations. Restricting and isolating populations that are critically endangered can be deadly. It results in loss of genetic diversity, achieved by inbreeding – reducing both the numbers of successful offspring and lifespan, whilst increasing vulnerability to disease and mutations.
Forest fires are a direct ecological threat to Amur leopards. Burning through and blazing forests, also means burning the leopard’s habitat – and the replacement of grasslands is what Amur leopards avoid.
The range of the Amur leopard has one of the highest annual rainfalls in all of Russia and when left to grow in full potential, results in a lush forest of mixed conifers and deciduous trees. The long history of frequent fires has unfortunately converted these important forests into permanent grasslands. Set purposely alight on often by local villagers provides an alternative form of habitat that provides them money – fern. Fern grows well in grasslands and is a very popular ingredient to Russian and Chinese dishes. So far, these ongoing forest fires have stripped primary forests leaving only 57% of Primorye forested.
Southwest Primorye is located close to the Russian borders with China and North Korea – both developing popular places that provides an opportunity and attraction for infrastructure projects such as developing gas and oil pipelines, airports and new railways.
Lifting the ban on the domestic trade of tiger parts
China has been considering lifting the ban that protects the domestic tiger trade using their parts for traditional medicine. This ban would be detrimental to not only tigers but also for leopards, as many other big Cat species are used as substitutes for tigers in Chinese remedies.
It’s that important word again. To some it means effort and to others it means safety – and depending on where you heart sits can make a substantial difference. Although in the past, very little attention and focus has been paid to the declining Amur leopard population, significant progress in change of attitude and conserving both Amur leopards and tigers has boosted and shifted.
Many organizations are developing and producing different measures of conservation to achieve a feature for the Amur leopards. A coalition of 13 international and Russian non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) has pooled resources by creating The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA). Using this case and organization is a great ambassador to show exactly how important and efficient conservation can be to ensure the survival of a whole species.
The members at ALTA have developed an encompassing conservation program for the Amur leopards range in Russia and Northeast China that covers forest fire-fighting, anti-poaching, population monitoring, ecological and biomedical research and support for protected areas and hunting leases. Other examples of productive ongoing leopard conservation includes snare removals, improved anti-poaching patrols, organizing education programs in local schools and developing community projects.
In addition to the ALTA is the wonderful World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – a major contribution to the conservation of endangered species including the Amur leopard. Tactics include supporting anti-poaching activities in wildlife refuges and all Amur leopard habitat in the Russian far east, increasing the population of hooved species such as the roe deet and small wild boar – both important prey resources to the leopards, and finally, to enforce programs to stop the illegal trade in Amur leopard parts.
Ex situ Conservation
Currently there are around 300 Amur leopards kept in captivity across zoos in Europe, North America and Russia. Each zoo is taking part in breeding programs to ensure that zoo populations do not inbreed, thus creating genetic problems. Transfer of leopards across zoos which are the most distant from one other maintains high genetic variation. Contributing a decent level of genetic variation is very important if individuals are going to be reintroduced back into the wild for future prospects.
Despite the conservation status of being critically endangered, its situation still holds hope and opportunities of saving the Amur leopard from extinction. The following factors should keep us on our toes of encouragement and support…
Despite the population dropping to low numbers, there are indications of good reproduction rates in the wild.
A reserve has been established in the Jilin province in China that connects the habitats of tigers and leopards in China. Assisted with improved forest management, law-enforcement and protection status may provide a second chance to return this large Cat population back to a safe level.
The remaining population have been stable for the past 30 years, despite the tough tackles they face against human induced pressures.
The possibility of re-introducing Amur leopards from zoo breeding programmes into areas of south Sikhote Alin, where these leopards disappeared 30 years ago, will establish a second wild population which will help tackle the decline. Prey numbers have increased in these areas since the local extinction, providing great opportunities for the Amur leopard ecologically.
So there you have it, the ins and outs of the deadly reasons behind decline, the change in attitude and plans for conservation and the predicted future of the Amur leopard. We all have our own opinion, but to me – protecting such a glorious, unique species seems hopeful. All we need to do is continue pushing organisations and government towards the right attitude and steps involved in protection. Saving the future of the Amur leopard is down to everyone, not just Russia. So let’s get involved and spread the hope for protection of the Amur leopard’s future.