World’s rarest big cat turns the corner as Amur leopard population grows sharply
Amur leopard steps back from the brink – Courtesy of WWF Russia
April 2013. 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 finalized the results of snow track leopard census
Best hopes exceeded
The census produced four happy results, and one alarming development. In general the results exceeded all expectations – 48-50 individual leopards were detected, or 1.5 times more than 5 years ago.
The first bit of good news was that, according to census results, minimum leopard numbers were determined as 43-45 adult individuals and 4-5 cubs. In 2007, 27-34 leopards were recorded. Thus, if the slogan “Only 30 left in the wild!” was recently true, today we can say with confidence that not less than 50 Far Eastern leopards now live in the Russian Far East. Although good news, 50 is still a critically small number for the long term survival of the population.
The second piece of good news, the leopard has moved northwards. 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 the new northernmost cat family is the leopards’ response to the successful organization of proper control over the Poltavsky Refuge by local authorities. Under the new management the reserve became part of the network of protected areas known as “Land of the Leopard”.
The third piece of good news, the leopard has also moved towards the coast. One of the litters was found during the survey was in an area where leopards were previously unrecorded: in the reeds and shrubs of a river delta. This winter there was a high concentration of hare [in] this habitat, and due to the unusually deep snow roe deer moved there as well. Poachers did not realize that wild animals were moving into the area, and so a mother and a cub spent a safe winter by the sea side with plenty of food.
The fourth piece of good news, the leopard has moved to the south as well. One of the leopards was found on the border with North Korea. No leopards have been observed in this area for a century. It is quite possible that the animal crossed the border and has found some suitable habitat in the forests of China and North Korea. This fact highlights the importance of leopard habitat conservation in North Korea.
The alarming news – the winter census revealed 23 Amur tigers living in the territory, double the number compared to 5 years ago! These tigers are not considered as part of the main Changbaishan population, which itself is distinct from the main Russian Sikhote-Alin population and plays a key role in Amur tiger restoration in China. It is believed that differing habitat preferences allow these two competing predators competitors – 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.
Big cat competition
In such conditions, competition between the two rare cats may become an issue – over the past years at least three leopards were killed by tigers. Unfortunately, the results of the winter census added to these statistics. Tracking in 2013 revealed two cases when a tiger chased a leopard. Only the advanced tree-climbing skill of the leopard saved them from their larger cousins. The researchers should pay some serious attention to the problem of competition between Amur tigers and leopards.
The Far Eastern leopard 2013 census was conducted following a traditional methodology based on measuring print size. By recording the location of all tracks GPS-navigators and taking photos of the prints it was possible to minimize the human factor. Climatic conditions were not easy. On the one hand, deep snow and snow drifts obstructed the work – it was extremely difficult to move along the transects. On the other hand, deep snow and frozen snow crust forced animals to concentrate on local habitats, thus decreasing probability of counting the same animal on different routes. Having fresh snow on the crust allowed for quite precise measurement of all encountered prints.
Locating litters is a not easy task, particularly under severe winter conditions. Nevertheless, field workers registered 4 females with one kitten each, and one litter that has already broken away from 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 than that observed on the routes.
Chinese border leopards
A relatively large quantity of leopard prints 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.
World’s rarest cat
“The Far Eastern leopard, the rarest cat on the Earth, is stepping back from the brink” – comments Dr. Yury Darman, Director of Amur branch WWF Russia. “We started the recovery program in 2001 and now can be proud of having almost 50 leopards in the wild. The most crucial role is played by the establishment of large unified protected area with huge state support, which covers 360,000 hectares of leopard habitat in Russia. It is now necessary to accelerate the creation of a Sino-Russian trans-boundary reserve that would unify six adjacent protected areas encompassing 6,000 square kilometres and make the goal of a sustainable population of 70-100 Far Eastern leopards and 25-30 Amur tigers a realistic one”.
Census organizers express their gratitude to Russian border guards for taking active part in the census on the territory they patrol. They provided transportation, shared their excellent knowledge of the surveyed area and provided security along the routes.
April 2013. The forests of the Russian Far East are being pushed to the brink of destruction by pervasive, large-scale illegal logging, mostly to supply Chinese furniture and flooring manufacturers, according to a new report by WWF-Russia: here.
July 2013. At the end of June in China’s Heilongjiang Province, on the border with Russia’s Primorsky Province, a camera trap recorded a male Far Eastern (Amur) leopard: here.