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Bad news: leopard’s have lost 75 per­cent of their his­toric range

pub­lished 05 May 2016 | mod­i­fied 05 May 2016

Leopard in treeThe leop­ard (Pan­thera par­dus), one of the world’s most iconic big cats, has lost as much as 75 per­cent of its his­toric range, accord­ing to a paper pub­lished on 4 May in the open access sci­en­tific jour­nal PeerJ. Con­ducted by part­ners includ­ing the National Geo­graphic Society’s Big Cats Ini­tia­tive, inter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion char­i­ties the Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Lon­don (ZSL) and Pan­thera and the Inter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature (IUCN) Cat Spe­cial­ist Group, this study rep­re­sents the first known attempt to pro­duce a com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of leop­ards’ sta­tus across their entire range and all nine subspecies.

The research found that leop­ards his­tor­i­cally occu­pied a vast range of approx­i­mately 35 mil­lion km2 (13.5 mil­lion mi2) through­out Africa, the Mid­dle East and Asia. Today, how­ever, they are restricted to approx­i­mately 8.5 mil­lion km2 (3.3 mil­lion mi2).

To obtain their find­ings, the sci­en­tists spent three years review­ing more than 1,300 sources on the leopard’s his­toric and cur­rent range. The results appear to con­firm con­ser­va­tion­ists’ sus­pi­cions that, while the entire species is not yet as threat­ened as some other big cats, leop­ards are fac­ing a mul­ti­tude of grow­ing threats in the wild, and three sub­species have already been almost com­pletely eradicated.

The leop­ard is a famously elu­sive ani­mal, which is likely why it has taken so long to rec­og­nize its global decline
Andrew Jacob­son, lead author, ZSL’s Insti­tute of Zool­ogy, Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Lon­don and the National Geo­graphic Society’s Big Cats Initiative »

This study rep­re­sents the first of its kind to assess the sta­tus of the leop­ard across the globe and all nine sub­species,” added Jacob­son. “Our results chal­lenge the con­ven­tional assump­tion in many areas that leop­ards remain rel­a­tively abun­dant and not seri­ously threatened.”

In addi­tion, the research found that while African leop­ards face con­sid­er­able threats, par­tic­u­larly in North and West Africa, leop­ards have also almost com­pletely dis­ap­peared from sev­eral regions across Asia, includ­ing much of the Ara­bian Penin­sula and vast areas of for­mer range in China and South­east Asia. The amount of habi­tat in each of these regions is plum­met­ing, hav­ing declined by nearly 98 percent.

Panthera populations in AfricaPanthera populations Middle East and East AsiaPanthera populations Eastern Asia

Leop­ards’ secre­tive nature, cou­pled with the occa­sional, brazen appear­ance of indi­vid­ual ani­mals within megac­i­ties like Mum­bai and Johan­nes­burg, per­pet­u­ates the mis­con­cep­tion that these big cats con­tinue to thrive in the wild – when actu­ally our study under­lies the fact that they are increas­ingly threat­ened,” said Luke Dol­lar, co-​author and pro­gram direc­tor of the National Geo­graphic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.

Philipp Hen­schel, co-​author and Lion Pro­gram sur­vey coor­di­na­tor for Pan­thera, stated: “A severe blind spot has existed in the con­ser­va­tion of the leop­ard. In just the last 12 months, Pan­thera has dis­cov­ered the sta­tus of the leop­ard in South­east Asia is as per­ilous as the highly endan­gered tiger.” Hen­schel con­tin­ued: “The inter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity must dou­ble down in sup­port of ini­tia­tives – pro­tect­ing the species. Our next steps in this very moment will deter­mine the leopard’s fate.”

Co-​author Peter Gern­gross, with the Vienna, Austria-​based map­ping firm BIO­GEOMAPS, added: “We began by cre­at­ing the most detailed recon­struc­tion of the leopard’s his­toric range to date. This allowed us to com­pare detailed knowl­edge on its cur­rent dis­tri­b­u­tion with where the leop­ard used to be and thereby cal­cu­late the most accu­rate esti­mates of range loss. This research rep­re­sents a major advance­ment for leop­ard sci­ence and conservation.”

Leop­ards are capa­ble of sur­viv­ing in human-​dominated land­scapes pro­vided they have suf­fi­cient cover, access to wild prey and tol­er­ance from local peo­ple. In many areas, how­ever, habi­tat is con­verted to farm­land and native her­bi­vores are replaced with live­stock for grow­ing human pop­u­la­tions. This habi­tat loss, prey decline, con­flict with live­stock own­ers, ille­gal trade in leop­ard skins and parts and legal tro­phy hunt­ing are all fac­tors con­tribut­ing to leop­ard decline.

Con­ser­va­tion sta­tus
Com­pli­cat­ing con­ser­va­tion efforts for the leop­ard, Jacob­son noted: “Our work under­scores the press­ing need to focus more research on the less stud­ied sub­species, three of which have been the sub­ject of fewer than five pub­lished papers dur­ing the last 15 years. Of these sub­species, one – the Javan leop­ard (P. p. melas) – is cur­rently clas­si­fied as Crit­i­cally Endan­gered by the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species, while another – the Sri Lankan leop­ard (P. p. kotiya) – is clas­si­fied as Endan­gered, high­light­ing the urgent need to under­stand what can be done to arrest these wor­ry­ing declines.”

Some hope remains
Despite this trou­bling pic­ture, some areas of the world inspire hope. Even with his­toric declines in the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains and the Russ­ian Far East/​Northeast China, leop­ard pop­u­la­tions in these areas appear to have sta­bi­lized and may even be rebound­ing with sig­nif­i­cant con­ser­va­tion invest­ment through the estab­lish­ment of pro­tected areas and increased anti-​poaching measures.

Leop­ards have a broad diet and are remark­ably adapt­able,” said Joseph Lemeris Jr., a National Geo­graphic Society’s Big Cats Ini­tia­tive researcher and paper co-​author. “Some­times the elim­i­na­tion of active per­se­cu­tion by gov­ern­ment or local com­mu­ni­ties is enough to jump­start leop­ard recov­ery. How­ever, with many pop­u­la­tions rang­ing across inter­na­tional bound­aries, polit­i­cal coop­er­a­tion is critical.”

(Source: Jour­nal PeerJ press release, 04.05.2016)

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Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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