The critically endangered Amur leopard is to be found only in the forests of southwest Primorsky Krai in the Russian Far East nowadays, with only about 30 – 35 individuals left in the wild. Therefore, the Amur leopard is protected and conservation programmes are essential to ensure the survival of this big cat. The Zoological Society of London coordinates the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) which runs a range of conservation programmes to protect these stunning animals and top predators.
These conservation activities focus on protection from illegal hunting of leopards and their prey, awareness programmes with local villages, population monitoring using cameratraps, and decrease of forest degredation/destruction.
Although the population size of Amur leopards has been stable for some time now, the number of animals is critically small to ensure survival. Their future is bleak, considering that expansion of the only range is impossible, because it is surrounded by either sea or human settlements. Not to mention the effect of inbreeding due to the small population of leopards. Therefore, a reintroduction plan has been developed
by a coalition of several international non-governmental agencies, including ZSL, and regional agencies of the Russian Federation. This reintroduction scheme envisages to establish a second population, from captive-borne animals, in former leopard habitat north of Vladivostok and away from the cities. In addition to vigorous conservation activities to protect the existing small population, this should secure the future of Amur leopards.
As reintroduction of large carnivores using captive-borne individuals is extremely difficult, time consuming and expensive it is rarely done and has not led to success yet. It is always a better option to expand wild populations, or to translocate wild animals, if possible. This option being out of the question for the Amur leopard, makes it the only big cat for which reintroduction using zoo stock is endorsed by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. ZSL will play a key role in this plan, as it co-ordinates the European/Russian zoo conservation breeding programme in partnership with Moscow Zoo.
The reintroduction plan, which has been approved by local and international experts during an Amur leopard and tiger conference in Vladivostok in March 2010, is currently being reviewed by the Russian authorities. When endorsed by the authorities it is possible that offspring of Amur leopards in zoos will one day roam wild in the forests of the Russian Far East.
(Source: ZSL website, 13.09.2011; TIGRIS website; ALTA website; Wildlife Vets International website)