Amur Leopard

The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) or the Manchurian leopard also called Far Eastern leopard, is a native to the mountainous region of the taiga as well as other temperate forests in Korea, Russian Far East, Korea and the Northeast China. It is one of the rarest feline 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 or one category below “extinct in the wild”.

Of all the nine subspecies Amur leopard shows the strongest divergence in coat pattern. Its coat is of a pale, cream color (especially in winter) and has widely spaced rosettes with thick, black rings and darkened centers. The length of the coat varies between 2.5 cm (1 in) in summer and 7.5 cm (3 in) in winter. The paler coat and longer fur makes it distinct from other subspecies. They are also known to have light, blue-green eyes.

Ecology

Males weigh 32–48 kg (71–106 lb), with unusually large males up to 60–75 kg (132–165 lb). Females are smaller than the males at 25–43 kg (55–95 lb). The main prey species of the animal are roe and sika deer, along with hares and badgers.

This animal faces problems in areas where it shares territory with tigers, but this is seldom the case in Russia. Studies have shown that an increased tiger population in the Southwest Primorye area has not unfavorably affected the leopard population.

Amur leopards kept in zoos demonstrate some evidence of seasonal breeding with a peak in births in late spring or in early summer. After a gestation period of around 12 weeks cubs are born in litters of 1–4, with an average litter size of just over two. Young leopards stay with their mother for up to two years before becoming fully independent. Breeding for the first time takes place at an age of 3–4 years in females. In the wild, leopards live for 10–15 years and they may reach 20 years in captivity.

Leopards killed

Killed in ChinaA female of an extremely rare Amur leopard has been killed in Chin a. Two men were caught in January 2014 transporting its carcass out of a forest in China’s north-western Shaanxi province by van. One trapper was apprehended while the other managed to flee. Exact date of the crime has not been disclosed.

Global conservation organization WWF on its website estimates the population in China at between just seven and 12, with another 20 to 25 in Russia.

Gao Jinlong, the wildlife protection chief in the city of Yanan, said the leopard was the first of its kind to be seen in the province in decades, Xinhua news agency said. “We’ve heard of rumors of a leopard here for many years, but never found any solid evidence,” Mr Gao said.

“It’s such a great shame that the rumors were finally verified with the bloody truth,” Mr Gao said. China placed the Amur leopard under “top grade national level protection” in 1983, according to Xinhua.

Threats

Poaching :- Poaching of leopards as well as their prey species is one of the biggest threats. The killers of leopards include both poor local villagers and neo-rich Russians, mainly from the city of Vladivostok, as well as Chinese who illegally cross over to Russia. Russians kill many more deer than is officially allowed and the leopards are sometimes caught in snares as well. From 2002 to 2010, skins or corpses of nine Amur leopards killed by poachers have been found in Russia and at least two leopards have been killed in China.

Inbreeding :- Lack of genetic diversity in small and isolated population may cause inbreeding depression (declining numbers due to reduced reproduction, lifespan and increased vulnerability to diseases). However, the results of research so far are inconclusive and additional information on the effects of inbreeding is needed before conclusions can be drawn. They have young every two years.

Deforestation:- Deforestation is another great threat. Forests, which are home of leopards are slowly disappearing as a result of frequent fires. Locals start fires for various reasons, but mainly to stimulate the growth of ferns that are a very popular ingredient in Russian and Chinese dishes. This is detrimental to the survival of leopards and other wildlife.

Conservation

Map showing distribution of Amur Leopards
Map showing distribution of Amur Leopards

Although not a good deal of attention has been paid to the conditions, noteworthy progress in the field of conservation of Amur leopards and tigers has been made over the last decade. A coalition of 13 international and Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has pooled resources by creating The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA). Inside the Russian Far East, Phoenix Fund conducts habitat protection and anti-poaching activities, while the other members of ALTA conduct public outreach, policy development, and scientific research to forward Amur leopard conservation. Collectively, the organization members have been co-operating for many years in developing, financing and implementing conservation projects in Russia and China. In addition, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is also a major contributor.

In recent years wildlife in Russia has faced lack of political interest in conservation. Negative developments since 2000 include elimination of the State Committee for Nature Conservation, revoking the law enforcement rights of Inspection Tiger (an anti-poaching brigade for protection of tigers and leopards), and a decrease of about 80 per cent in the number of field inspectors for protection of forests and animals. The only official North Korean government site, Naenara, reported in 2009 that in Myohyangsan Nature Reserve located in Hyangsan County, there were some leopards. It is likely the southernmost living group of Amur’s Leopard.

In the zoos of Russia, North America and Europe there are around 300 Amur leopards. They are part of the breeding programs that try to make certain that the zoo populations do not become too inbred. Animals are transferred among the zoos so that different leopards of the same subspecies can breed together to produce individuals with high genetic variation. It is important to maintain zoo populations of these cats 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.

Amur leopard population in Russia up 50 per cent

Amur leopard population has grown by half since 2007 and they have also expanded their habitat as far as North Korea, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said in March 2013. However, at an estimated 48 to 50 animals in Russia, including four to five cubs, it remains critically endangered and the least populous of all leopard subspecies, the fund said.

Environmentalists were unable to take a census of the big cats for several years, because the population is counted by their paw prints in the snow. No lasting snow was seen since 2011 in their habitat, an area 5,000 square kilometer in Russia’s far eastern Primorye region. The previous census in 2007 put the number between 27 and 34, which many experts said at the time is not enough to ensure continued reproduction of the subspecies.

However, a conservation drive spearheaded by the WWF and supported by the Kremlin improved the situation. Now these leopards are expanding their range to territories both north and south of its current habitat, reaching the Russian-North Korean border, where no big cats were seen since the last century, the WWF said.

The total number of Amur leopards may be even higher than 50, because between five and 11 cats also supposedly live in northern China, where no census was held. Environmentalists hope to increase the population to 70 to 100 cats, which would ensure its stability, said Yury Darman, head of WWF’s Amur branch.

At its current size, the population of the Amur leopard can be wiped out by an epidemic. But whether the WWF can reach its goals remains open to question, given that the cats’ food supply is depleting due to mismanagement of deer parks in the area, the report said.

Moreover, the number of Amur tigers sharing the territory with the leopard has doubled to 23 animals since 2008, the WWF said.

Tigers compete with the leopard for food and are not averse to killing a smaller cat in a standoff over a deer or boar corpse.

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