Amur leopard: the situation at the beginning of 2022


Amur leopard: the situation at the beginning of 2022

The Amur leopard is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, meaning it is considered an extremely high-risk species of extinction in the wild. In 2007, it was estimated that there were only 19-26 wild leopards left in southeastern Russia and northeastern China, making it one of the rarest felines in the world.

As of 2015, fewer than 60 individuals are estimated to survive in the wild in Russia and China. Camera trap surveys conducted between 2014 and 2015 revealed 92 individuals in a cross-border area of ​​8,398 km2 (3,242 square miles) along the Russian-Chinese border.

In 2019, the population was reported to have risen to around 90 individuals. It remains a critically endangered species even though its numbers appear to be slowly recovering. Genetic research findings indicate that the Amur leopard is genetically close to leopards in northern China and Korea, suggesting that the original leopard population in this region fragmented in the early 20th century.

The North China leopard was previously recognized as a distinct subspecies P. p. japonensis, but was recognized as a synonym for the Amur leopard in 2017. Today, in the Russian Far East, the Amur leopard habitat covers an area of ​​approximately 7,000 km2 (2,700 square miles).

The animal is well adapted to the cold and snowy climate of the region, and several specimens often cross the borders between Russia, China and North Korea via the Tumen River despite the presence of a tall and long barbed wire fence that marks the boundary between these states.

Elsewhere in China, the leopard range is more fragmented with small populations found mostly in six isolated reserves, including the Fobing National Nature Reserve. In Shanxi province, leopards were spotted in 16 protected areas during a counting survey conducted with camera traps.

The Amur leopard is threatened by poaching, which affects both leopards and its prey, habitat destruction, deforestation or exploitation of the forests in which it lives. Its natural habitat is threatened by forest fires and the construction of new roads.

Tigers can easily kill leopards if large prey is in short supply. The competition between these two large predators decreases in the summer when, in addition to the large ungulates, they can also feed on small prey. In winter conditions are less favorable for tigers and the extension of the trophic niche overlaps that of leopards, probably reaching its apex.

Man-made fires pose a major threat to the leopard's survival. Setting fire to fields is a habit of rural farmers to improve pasture fertility for livestock, kill ticks and other insects, make scrap metal visible so it can be easily collected, cut down vegetation along train tracks, and stimulate the growth of ferns.

Young ferns are sold in stores, served in restaurants, and even exported to China as a popular dish. Surveys obtained using satellite imagery and GIS techniques revealed that on average 19% of southwestern Primorye burns annually, while 46% burns at least once in six years.

A serious problem with the wild survival of the Amur leopard is potential inbreeding matings. The now thin and fragmented remaining wild population could disappear due to genetic degeneration, even without direct human influence.

Levels of genetic diversity in wild specimens are remarkably low, indicative of a history of inbreeding in the population over several generations.