Found in Caucasus Mountains, eastern Turkey, parts of western Afghanistan, northern Iran and southern Turkmenistan Persian leopard (Panthera pardus ciscaucasica) or the Caucasian leopard, is the largest subspecies. With fewer than 871-1,290 mature individuals and a declining population trend the subspecies is endangered throughout its range in the Middle East.
Its large animal, weighing up to 60 kg (130 lb), and light in color. It can stand up to 2.5 ft (0.76 m) tall at the shoulder. Biometric data collected from 25 females and males in various provinces of Iran indicate average body length of 259 cm (102 in). Body weight of a live young male inhabiting northern part of Iran weighed 64 kg (140 lb).
Distribution and habitat
Caucasian leopard P.p. ciscaucasica was first described in 1914 by a Russian explorer Satunin from a specimen in the Kuban region of North Caucasus. In 1920s, the British zoologist Pocock collected specimens from different areas of Persia and described them as Persian leopard P.p. saxicolor in 1927, though recognizing the similarity to P.p. ciscaucasica. Today, these names are considered synonyms.
There has been a massive decline in the former range of the leopard in the Caucasus, which is estimated to have once covered the whole region, except for steppe areas. The severe economic crisis following major social and political changes in 1992 in the former Soviet Union, together with the weakening of formerly effective protection systems resulted in a sharp rise in hunting of wild ungulates, persecution of leopards and fragmentation of ranges of all wildlife. According to the figures of 2008, the distribution of the estimated 871-1,290 mature leopards is as follows.
- about 200–300 survive in Afghanistan, where their status is poorly known;
- fewer than 10–13 survive in Armenia;
- fewer than 10–13 survive in Azerbaijan;
- fewer than 5 survive in Georgia;
- about 550–850 live in Iran, which is the leopard stronghold in the Middle East;
- about 3–4 survive in Nagorno-Karabakh;
- fewer than 10 survive in the Russian North Caucasus;
- fewer than 5 survive in Turkey;
- about 78–90 live in Turkmenistan.
Their habitat consists of sub-alpine meadows, broadleaved forests and rugged ravines from 600–3,800 meters (2,000–12,500 ft) in the Greater Caucasus, and rocky slopes, mountain steppes, and sparse juniper forests in the Lesser Caucasus and Iran. Only some small and isolated populations remain in the whole ecoregion. Suitable habitat in each range country is limited and most often situated in remote border areas. Local populations depend on immigration from source populations in the south, mainly in Iran. The Persian leopard is a flag-ship species. Its presence is a sign of the health of the entire ecosystem.
Since early Holocene people and leopards have co-existed in Armenia. Leopards were relatively common in the country’s mountains till the mid-20th century. In modern times, their main concentration is in the rugged and cliffy terrain of Khosrov Reserve, located south-east of Yerevan on the south-western slopes of the Geghama Mountains, where between October 2000 and July 2002 tracks of no more than 10 individuals were found in an area of 780 km2 (300 sq mi). Leopards were known to live on the Meghri Ridge in the extreme south of Armenia, where only one individual was camera-trapped between August 2006 to April 2007, and no signs of other leopards were found during track surveys conducted over an area of 296.9 km2 (114.6 sq mi). The local prey base could support 4–10 individuals, but poaching and disturbance caused by livestock breeding, gathering of edible plants and mushrooms, deforestation and human-induced wild fires are so high that they exceed the tolerance limits of leopards.
Leopards exist in the Talysh Mountains where their habitat is continuous with that on the Iranian side of the mountains. In the Ilisu State Reserve in the northwest very few individuals survive. Despite sporadic sightings, it was not clear whether the animal had been extinct in Azerbaijan by the late 1990s, until a specimen was camera-trapped in March 2007 in the Hirkan State Reserve/Hirkan National Park.
Since 1954, the animal was thought to have become extinct in Georgia — killed by hunters. In April 2001, an adult female was shot on the border of Kabardino-Balkaria, her two cubs were captured and taken to the Novosibirsk Zoo in Russia. In the winter of 2003, zoologists found footprints of a leopard in Vashlovani Reserve in southeastern Georgia and later camera-trapped one young male individual several times. Leopard signs have also been found at two localities in Tusheti, the headwaters of the Andi Koisu and Assa rivers, bordering Dagestan.
Over the last 60 years, there have been several sightings of leopards around the Tbilisi area and in the Shida Kartli province to the northwest of the capital. Leopards live primarily in dense forests, although several have been spotted in the lowland plains in the southeastern region of Kakheti in 2004.
These cats are mainly found in the Alborz and the Zagros mountain ranges. These mountain ranges cover a vast area starting from the borders with Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, extending to the Caspian littoral region and on to Turkmenistan and western parts of Afghanistan in the Alborz range. Along the Zagros range, leopard habitats extend to the south of Iran, close to the Persian Gulf.
74 protected and non-protected zones were identified throughout the country in recent years as sites where leopards are present. Of these 69% are located in the Hircanian forests and Alborz mountain range in the northern part of Iran. This area is considered as one of the most important habitats for leopards in the country. In Bamu National Park located northeast of Shiraz in Fars Province, camera trapping carried out from autumn 2007 to spring 2008 revealed seven individuals in a sampling area of 321.12 km2 (123.99 sq mi).
In the North Caucasus regions of Russia
Signs of the spotted cat’s presence have been found in the upper Andiyskoe and Avarskoye Koisu rivers in Dagestan. According to local reports leopards may also occur in Ingushetia, Ossetia and Chechnya. Leopards no longer occur in the Western Caucasus. In 2009, a leopard reintroduction centre was created in Sochi National Park, where two male leopards from Turkmenistan are being kept since September 2009, and two females from Iran since May 2010. Their descendants will be released into the wild in the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve.
Caucasian Leopards’ diet varies depending on the habitat of their territory. Here their main prey is the most plentiful ungulate such as roe deer, Bezoar goat, Goitered gazelle, wild boar, West Caucasian tur, mouflons and urial. Occasionally they also take smaller animals such as crested porcupine and Cape hare. They also hunt wild sheep, red deer and domestic livestock such as camels, goats, sheep and dogs.
They face biggest threat from poachers, depletion of prey base, human disturbance such as presence of military and training of troops in border areas, deforestation, infrastructure development, fire, agricultural expansion and overgrazing.
In Iran, primary threats are habitat disturbances followed by illegal hunting and excess of livestock in the leopard habitats. The leopards’ chances for survival outside protected areas appear very slim.