Trekking through the snow blanketed forests of the Russian Far East is a cat few have heard of. Its long winter coat, featuring widely spaced rosettes, provides plenty of protection from the sub-zero temperatures of its home. In a cruel irony, this source of protection may ultimately be its downfall. With a wild population of fewer than 100 individuals, this magnificent animal is being hunted to the brink of extinction for its coat. This is the plight of the Amur leopard.
People usually think of leopards in the savannas of Africa or the humid jungles of Asia. But, in the Russian Far East and northeastern China, the Amur leopard has adapted perfectly to life in temperate forests that regularly have an average temperature of only 1.5C. The one thing they have not been able to adapt against, however, is humans.
Between 1970 and 1983, over 80 percent of the Amur leopard’s habitat was lost due to a mixture of agricultural land conversion, logging, and forest fires. Siberian roe deer and Sika deer, for which the Amur leopards depend upon for food, became even more scarce as habitat decreased further.
As agriculture increased in these areas, so to did the threat of poaching. Village growth led to the forest becoming more accessible, substantially growing the threat; not just for the leopards but, all their scarce prey as well. In absence of wild prey, the leopards often venture into farms in search for food. Owners of these farms are quick to protect by eliminating leopards attacking any part of their livestock.
Ongoing development programs, such as gas pipeline plans, expanding road networks, and coal extraction are further reducing and degrading available Amur leopard habitat. Coupled with the overharvest of timber and illegal logging, human-induced forest fires present a significant threat to what remains. Satellite monitoring indicates that approximately 50% of Southwest Primorye, a portion of the Amur leopards habitat, burns at least once every 10 years.
All is not lost, however. Even now large tracts of forest, which are ideal leopard habitat, exist. The Land of The Leopard National Park was established on 280 thousand hectares of taiga in 2012 marking a significant effort to begin saving the world’s rarest cat. Numbers are now increasing from fifteen years ago when just 30 remained and conservation organizations are hopeful this upward trend will stick with intensive conservation measures. The news of 90 Amur leopards spotted along the borders of Russia and China was a victory in 2019.
“With the establishment of the Land of the Leopard National Park, in conjunction with other conservation efforts, we can now start to focus on how to begin bringing them back.” — Dr. Sybille Klenzendorf, Managing Director of Species Conservation, WWF
Alongside on the ground conservation efforts, zoos are making lead way in bringing this species back from the brink. A reintroduction program approved by the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources will introduce breeding pairs of Amur leopards from European zoos to a reserve in the southeastern tip of the country. It is hoped this reintroduction will help the wild population increase in the next 20 years.
While not all zoos are able to contribute to the leopard’s population growth in this manner, there is still plenty else for them to do. The Santa Barbara Zoo, home to three Amur leopards, is just one of several AZA-accredited facilities passionately working to introduce more of the public to this amazing species.
Marta, a cub born at Santa Barbara Zoo in August 2021, may not realize it but she is one of the leading ambassadors of her species in the world. Hundreds of viewers from around the world watch her antics daily on Zoolife; who quickly become inspired to care and learn more. While Marta gets them onto Zoolife, daily talks given by passionate zookeepers hook them into learning more. It is in this manner that new conservation heroes are born.
Besides directly supporting zoos through platforms like Zoolife or in person visits, there are other ways for people to help in their every day lives. In today’s world, much of the wood we use comes from forests around the world. This includes the materials we use to build our homes, the furniture we buy to place in the homes, and the paper we use in various manners. You can help forest-dwelling animals, like the Amur leopard, by choosing lumber and paper products made using sustainable practices.
Although Amur leopards stalk alone, they don’t have to be alone in this fight against extinction. All of us, including you dear reader, have the opportunity to make a difference. As you go into the new year, think of what impact you wish to have upon this world and what you will leave for future generations.
Want to see an Amur leopard from the comfort of your own home? Visit www.zoolife.tv today to see Ajax and Marta as they go about their lives at the Santa Barbara Zoo.