In the Russian Far East, a rare subspecies of leopard, the Amur leopard, has adapted to life in the temperate forests and mountains. It is also known as the Far East leopard or the Korean leopard. The Amur leopard is teetering on the brink of extinction. The species is threatened by poaching, encroaching civilisation and habitat loss due to forest exploitation.
The Amur leopard is the rarest cat in the world. According to WWF, there are only about 30 individuals in the world today. As there is such a small population remaining, the loss of each leopard placing the species at a greater risk of extinction.
Amur leopards are critically endangered largely due to the illegal wildlife trade. They are poached mainly for their remarkable spotted fur. In 1999, an undercover investigation team found a female and male Amur leopard skin that were being sold for $500 and $1000 respectively in the village of Barabash, which was close to the Kedrovaya Pad Reserve in Russia. Villages and agriculture surround the leopards’ natural habitat of forests. Consequently, these forests are relatively accessible. Amur leopards are most often killed by local Russians who live in small villages in and around the leopard habitat. Most of the villagers hunt entirely illegally. Poaching is therefore not only a problem for the leopards themselves, but also for important prey species, such as sika deer, roe deer and hare, as these are hunted by the villagers for cash and food.
The prey base in the forest of the Amur Leopards’ habitat is insufficient for the leopards’ survival. Prey populations could only recover if the use of their forests by local people is controlled and regulated. Measures must also be taken to limit the poaching and hunting of hoofed prey species. There are still large territories of suitable habitat for the Amur leopard both in Russia and China. However, in China particularly, this significant shortage of prey cannot support large populations of leopards and tigers. Efforts must be made to limit the poaching of prey species, and the logging of forests must be managed more sustainably, in order to make these large traits adequately habitable for the leopards.
Another acute concern for the Amur leopards is the problem of inbreeding. This problem is further exasperated by the leopards having such a tiny population, as there are only about 20-25 leopards left in the wild today. This remaining population could disappear as a result of genetic degeneration. The levels of diversity are remarkably low, which indicates a history of inbreeding over several generations. These levels of genetic reduction could impede health, survival and reproduction of some, but not all, genetically diminished small populations.
The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) is an initiative, made up of Russian and western conservation organisations, that works toward the conservation and protection of Amur leopards and tigers. It works towards securing a future for these species in the Russian Far East and Northeast China. ALTA collaborates with local, regional and federal government, and non-government organisations to protect the area’s biological wealth through sustainable development, conservation and local community involvement. In this way, the extraordinary Amur leopard can hopefully be brought back from the brink of extinction, and onto the road of recovery.