Leopard (Panthera pardus) – is one of the most widespread predators. There are found from twenty to thirty leopard subspecies in the world, varying in their coloring and spot pattern. These cats live in African tropical forests and oases in the Sahara, in Indian mountains, on Yangtze plateau in China and in the Russian Far East.
But regardless of this diversity, there is a leopard subspecies that runs the risk of immediate extinction. The rarest cat on earth – the Amur leopard, which population in the wild hardly exceeds 30 individuals, inhabits only the southwest of the Russian Far East. The Phoenix Fund thinks it critically important to do everything possible to secure its survival.
Amur leopard status (Panthera pardus orientalis)
In Russia’s Red Book of Endangered species the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orietalis) is attributed to Category I as the rarest, placed on the brink of extinction subspecies, inhabiting an extremely limited range, with the core population on the territory of the Russian Far East. It is also included in the IUCN Red Book of Endangered Species, as well as in Appendix I of CITES. Hunting for leopards is prohibited since 1956. According to the 2002-2003 survey, only 28-33 Amur leopards are left in the wild in Primorye.
Distribution and habitat
Amur leopard is the most northern leopard subspecies, with the distribution area that goes a little northward from the 45 parallel. At present it can be found only in the southwest of the Russian Far East. This is one of the rarest felids in the world. In the Russian Far East there is no other mammal whose survival would be under a more immediate threat. The characteristic for this predator habitat is mixed coniferous-broadleaved forest. This large cat prefers broken terrain, steep slopes, rocks and watersheds. In Primorye the Amur leopard is protected in Kedrovaya Pad nature reserve, Barsovy and Borisovskoye Plateau wildlife refuges.
Amur leopard biology
Many specialists consider the Amur leopard one of the most beautiful leopard subspecies, frequently comparing it with the snow leopard. And indeed it is a wonderful slender cat with the body length of 107-136 cm (3.5 – 4 feet) and a long tail reaching 82-90 cm (around 2.5 feet). If compared to the Amur tiger, this felid is not large: females weigh about 50 kg (25 pounds), and males – around 70 kg (35 pounds). In summer the length of its fur does not exceed 2.5 cm (1 inch), but in wintertime it becomes longer and thicker, making up 5-7 cm (2-3 inches). The winter pelage coloring varies from light- yellow to rusty-red and yellowish-red with golden shades. In summer the coloring is brighter. Scattered along the whole body large size rosettes with very thick borders, which usually have no space or gaps, create a very distinctive, specific spot pattern of the Amur leopard coloring. Having a very sharp eyesight, these cats can discern the prey at a distance of as much as 1.5 km. However it can perfectly hear and smell as well.
The Amur leopards become pubertal at the age of 2.5-3 years, with males a little later than females. Mating season usually starts in the second half of winter. After three months of pregnancy, females bring one-two and more rarely three spotty cubs. The little leopards are born blind and weigh just around 400-600 gr. (a little over 1 pound). Their body length makes up 15-17 cm (6-7 inches). They open their eyes only on the seventh-ninth day after the birth. Female arranges a den in low accessible and desolate places: caves, clefts, under tree roots. When the cubs are two months old, their mother starts feeding them on half-digested meat, habituating them to game. At three months small leopards change their coloring: black spots on the coats turn into rosettes, the same as adult individuals have. Young felids stay with their mother until they are around two. Each leopardess has its individual habitat, which makes up 60-100 km?. Males have a territory that is four-six times greater and visit female territories for mating. Male habitats include territories of four-six adult females. On their individual territories, along which they regularly wander, leopards leave marks on trees and rake out the ground in the places of rest and near the prey.
Leopards hunt alone in the twilight or after the dark has fallen. Its main prey species are sika deer and roe deer, though it also enjoys eating badger, raccoon dog and Manchzhurian hare. The predator can also sneak on deer farms and kill park deer. Leopards, as well as tigers, hunt by two principal ways: either by stalking on its prey or from an ambush. Females can hunt together with their cubs. When hunting, this large felid very skillfully uses the relief, choosing different shelters and surface irregularities, trying not to step on dry branches and leaves, going along other animals tracks, roots and stones. Having approached its prey by 5-10 meters, leopard impetuously rushes forward, chasing it with a series of leaps. This cat can stand without food for rather a long period. Usually, an adult leopard needs one adult ungulate for 12-15 days. But under bad conditions the interval between hunting can reach up 20-25 days.
Main threats for the survival
- Destruction of its habitat because of massive logging, extension of road and railway network and frequent forest fires
- Fall in numbers of ungulates, that make up the predator’s food base
- Genetic impoverishment of the population as a result of inbreeding.
The Amur leopards are studied, employing the same methods that are used for the Amur tiger research.
- The Amur leopard: teacher edition. Vladivostok, 2003.
- Primorsky Red Book of Endangered Species. Animals. Vladivostok, 2005.
- The Russian Federation Red Book of Endangered Species. Animals. AST Astrel, 2001.
- Rare animals of our country. Leningrad, “Nauka”, 1990.
- Brakefield, Tom. Big Cats: kingdom of might. Voyageur Press, 1996.
Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Institute for Sustainable Use of Natural Resources (ISUNR)