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Evo­lu­tion of the Javan leop­ard and the urgent need for its conservation

pub­lished 06 May 2016 | mod­i­fied 06 May 2016

Javan leopard Tierpark BerlinAn inter­na­tional team of researchers from Ger­many and Indone­sia has dis­cov­ered new insights into the evo­lu­tion­ary his­tory of the Javan leop­ard. The results of the study con­firm that Javan leop­ards are clearly dis­tinct from Asian leop­ards and prob­a­bly colonised Java around 600,000 years ago via a land bridge from main­land Asia. The study, first pub­lished online on 3 May in the sci­en­tific Jour­nal of Zool­ogy, high­lights the urgent need for con­certed con­ser­va­tion efforts to pre­serve the Javan leop­ard from extinction.

Sci­en­tists from the Ger­man Leib­niz Insti­tute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), Tier­park Berlin (Ger­many), Taman Safari Indone­sia, Pots­dam Uni­ver­sity (Ger­many) and Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tional Indone­sia (Indone­sia) worked in close col­lab­o­ra­tion to answer the ques­tion whether the Javan leop­ard is a sep­a­rate sub­species of the leop­ard, as this would heighten the need for efforts to improve its via­bil­ity through active con­ser­va­tion mea­sures. The results show that Javan leop­ards diverged from main­land Asian leop­ards in the Mid­dle Pleis­tocene approx­i­mately 600,000 years ago and have already reached a degree of genetic dis­tinc­tive­ness which clearly war­rants the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Javan leop­ards as a sub­species (Pan­thera par­dus melas) of the leop­ard (Pan­thera par­dus).

The data pre­sented in our study high­light the urgent need for con­certed con­ser­va­tion efforts for this unique and dis­tinc­tive subspecies
Anton Ario, Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tional Indonesia »

Leop­ards likely migrated from main­land Asia to Java dur­ing a pro­longed period of low sea lev­els via a Malaya-​Java land bridge that by-​passed the island of Suma­tra. This might be one rea­son why leop­ards exist on main­land Asia and on Java today, but do not occur on Suma­tra or Bor­neo. How­ever, fos­sils show that leop­ards occurred at least in some parts of Suma­tra dur­ing the Pleis­tocene. “We assume that leop­ards became extinct on this island after the mas­sive erup­tion of the Toba vol­cano about 74,000 years ago. On Java, the impact of this erup­tion was minor, allow­ing leop­ards to sur­vive there”, explains Andreas Wilt­ing, sci­en­tist at the IZW and lead author of the study.

The sci­en­tists recon­structed the evo­lu­tion­ary his­tory of the Javan leop­ard using mito­chon­dr­ial DNA sequenced from museum spec­i­mens of leop­ards from Java and com­pared this genetic infor­ma­tion to leop­ard sequences from Asian main­land and Africa. The poten­tial his­tor­i­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion was recon­structed using species dis­tri­b­u­tion mod­els with envi­ron­men­tal data from the Last Glacial Max­i­mum and the Mid-​Holocene.

Con­ser­va­tion sta­tus
The Javan leop­ard is the last big cat still roam­ing on Java after the Sunda clouded leop­ard (in the Holocene) and the Javan tiger (in the early 1980s) went extinct. Sub­jected to anthro­pogenic pres­sures such as defor­esta­tion, the sub­species has dwin­dled sig­nif­i­cantly and is now listed as Crit­i­cally Endan­gered in the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species. With only a few hun­dred indi­vid­u­als still exist­ing in the wild and 52 liv­ing in cap­tiv­ity, the Javan leop­ard is one of the most threat­ened sub­species of big cats.

Next steps in con­ser­va­tion effort
“The data pre­sented in our study high­light the urgent need for con­certed con­ser­va­tion efforts for this unique and dis­tinc­tive sub­species”, empha­sizes Anton Ario from Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tional Indone­sia. Con­ser­va­tion mea­sures need to com­bine numer­ous man­age­ment activ­i­ties guided by a One Plan Approach, such as pro­tect­ing leop­ard habi­tats, rais­ing aware­ness in com­mu­ni­ties and estab­lish­ing a coor­di­nated breed­ing pro­gramme for Javan leop­ards in captivity.

A first step for such an inte­grated approach was estab­lished in 2014: an inter­na­tional stud­book was estab­lished, coor­di­nated by Taman Safari Indone­sia and Tier­park Berlin.

Now addi­tional mea­sures are required and fur­ther con­ser­va­tion actions for the remain­ing frag­mented wild Javan leop­ard pop­u­la­tions are needed to ensure that the last big cats on Java will con­tinue to roam the island for the fore­see­able future.

(Source: Leib­niz Insti­tute for Zoo & Wildlife Research press release, 04.05.2016)

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