Could it be that one of the rarest cats on earth, the Amur leopard ( Panthera pardus ssp. orientalis ) which is considered Critically Endangered according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ™, is resilient enough to recover from its population decline?
Specialists of Far Eastern Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, “Land of the Leopard” National Park, WWF and Wildlife Management Department of Primorsky Province have finalised the results of the Amur leopard census using snow tracks.
The results exceeded all expectations — 48 – 50 individual Amur leopards were detected, about 1.5 times more than 5 years ago.
The census produced four happy sensations and one alarming development.
According to the census results, a minimum number of 43 – 45 adult individual leopards and 4 – 5 cubs were were determined. In 2007, 27 – 34 leopards were recorded. Thus, though the slogan “Only 30 left in the wild!” was a fact until quite recently, today we can say with confidence that not less than 50 Amur leopards inhabit the territory of the Russian Far East. While WWF Russia is rejoiced by this fact, they say it is no reason to let down their guard. 50 is still a critically small number for long term persistence of a population.
The leopard has moved towards north. For many years the Krounovka River was the northern border of the leopard’s range. Three years ago a lonely male left his tracks on the territory of Poltavsky Provincial Wildlife Refuge to the north of that river. This winter a female with a cub was found there. The appearance of this cat family in this new northernmost region is the leopards’ response to the successful organisation of proper control over the Poltavsky Refuge by the Directorate of Protected Areas of Primorsky Province. Under the Directorate’s management the Reserve became part of the network of protected areas called “Land of the Leopard”.
The leopard has moved towards the seacoast as well. One of the litters was found by specialists in an area where leopards never used to appear: in the reeds and shrubs of a river delta. This winter there was a high concentration of hare in these habitats, and due to the deep snow roe deer moved there as well. Poachers did not realise that wild animals were concentrating there, and so a mother and a cub spent a calm and safe winter by the sea side with plenty of food.
The leopard has moved to the south. One of the leopards was found on the border with North Korea. No cases like this were recorded since the last century. It is quite possible that the animal will cross the border and temporarily inhabits the forests of China and North Korea. This fact highlights the importance of leopard habitat conservation in North Korea.
The winter census revealed 23 Amur tigers living in the territory, about double the number compared to 5 years ago. This is an independent group from the Changbaishan population, which is distinct from the main Russian Sikhote-Alin population and plays a key role in Amur tiger restoration in China. It is believed that different habitat preferences allow these two competing predators — tiger and leopard — to coexist. However, due to replacement of red deer by sika deer and low wild boar populations, the prey base of tigers and leopards in southwest Primorye has begun to more and more overlap. In such conditions, it is possible it will lead to increased and strong competition between the two rare big cats. As a matter of fact, over the past years at least three leopards were killed by tigers. Unfortunately, the results of the winter census added to the statistics. Tracking in 2013 revealed two cases when a tiger intentionally chased a leopard. Only advanced tree-climbing skill saved the spotted cat from the striped one. Thus, serious attention of the researchers should be focused on the problematic influence of the Amur tiger on the Amur leopard population.
The Amur leopard 2013 census was conducted following a traditional methodology based on measuring footprint size. By recording the location of all tracks by GPS-navigators and taking photos of the encountered footprints it was possible to minimise the human factor and subjective assessment. Climatic conditions were not easy. Deep snow and snow drifts obstructed the work and made it extremely difficult to move along the transects. But the same deep snow and frozen snow crust forced animals to concentrate on local spots and not move extensively, thus decreasing the probability of counting one and the same animal on different routes. Having fresh snow on the crust allowed for quite precise measurement of all encountered footprints.
Locating litters is a not easy task, particularly under severe winter conditions. Nevertheless, field workers registered 4 females with one cub each, and one litter that had already left its mother. This figure is considered normal for the given number of leopards, though in 2011 no less than 6 litters were counted. The information collected before the census in the fall and winter allows for the assumption that the real number of litters in 2013 is higher then that observed on the transects.
A relatively large quantity of leopard footprints were found along the border with China, but unfortunately it was not possible to conduct a simultaneous census in China. Last year, a minimum of 5 different leopards were photographed by camera traps there. Chinese specialists suggest that 8 – 11 cats inhabit the Hunchun, Wangqing, and Suiyang Nature Reserves, mostly in the vicinity of registered leopards in Russian border zone.
The above news item is reprinted from materials available at WWF Russia. Original text may be edited for content and length.
(Source: WWF Russia News, 15.03.2013)