The Amur leopard is having a pretty good decade, at least by its own recent standards. The critically endangered cat was on the brink of extinction in 2007, reduced to just 30 individuals by hunting and habitat loss. But a new census suggests its population has grown by 100 percent in eight years, raising hopes for its survival — and for other rare animals in similar need of an improbable comeback.
"Such a strong rebound in Amur leopard numbers is further proof that even the most critically endangered big cats can recover if we protect their habitat and work together on conservation efforts," says World Wildlife Fund (WWF) conservation director Barney Long in a statement about the census.
Amur leopards once inhabited a swath of East Asia, prowling temperate forests in northeastern China, the Korean peninsula and Russia's Primorsky province. Their modern decline is due partly to trophy hunters and local subsistence hunters, but also to the development of their wooded habitat for farming, logging, gas pipelines and other human activities. Their outlook was bleak in 2007, when a scientific census reported that only about 20 adults and a half dozen cubs were left in the wild.
Just eight years later, though, a new census has found at least 57 wild Amur leopards in Russia alone, plus another eight to 12 in nearby areas of China. The census includes 10,000 photos taken by camera traps spread across 900,000 acres of leopard habitat, some of which feature individual leopards that scientists can identify based on their distinctive pattern of spots.
How could such a rare animal rebound so quickly? Broader awareness of its plight has likely helped, but conservationists say the biggest single boost came in April 2012. That's when Russia created Land of the Leopard National Park, a 650,000-acre sanctuary that combined three existing wildlife refuges and added previously unprotected lands along the Chinese border and in the northeast.
"The national park became the main organizational force for leopard protection and research," says Yury Darman, head of WWF Russia's Amur Branch.
But while doubling the leopard's abundance is a big deal, dodging extinction is just the first step in a long slog back to stability. Amur leopard numbers have fluctuated before, and their recent plunge created a population bottleneck that left them with the lowest genetic diversity of any leopard subspecies.
Still, there is reason to be optimistic about Amur leopards. On top of their improved habitat and hints of recovery, they also have a recent big-cat precedent to follow. The Amur tiger, which shares much of the Amur leopard's habitat, has rebounded from fewer than 40 individuals a generation ago to an estimated 400 today. In fact, the news about the leopard census coincidentally came out the same week as a new video verifying that Amur tigers have expanded across the border into China.
Beyond keeping tabs on Russia's Amur leopards, conservationists are working on ways to monitor leopard populations in Chinese nature reserves — possibly setting the stage for a future Sino-Russian transboundary leopard refuge. Land of the Leopard's success does seem to support that idea, but in the meantime, conservationists can take solace in knowing the cats are no longer at death's door.
"There's still a lot of work to be done in order to secure a safe future for the Amur leopard," Long says, "but these numbers demonstrate that things are moving in the right direction."
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