for National Geographic News
The world's rarest big cat may be doomed to extinction.
A new census estimates that only 25 to 34 wild Amur leopards remain—at least 66 fewer than are needed to ensure survival, experts say.
Also known as the Far Eastern leopard, the Amur has been painted into a deadly corner by habitat-slashing, conservationists said this week.
Weighing in at about 55 to 130 pounds (25 to 59 kilograms), the large cat once flourished along the Korean Peninsula, in the Russian Far East, and in northeastern China. But habitat fragmentation and the hunting of the leopard and its prey have eviscerated wild populations, conservationists say.
The Amur's long legs and long fur set it apart from other leopards, allowing it to prowl in deep snow and withstand Siberian cold.
The leopard's snow tracks were the basis of the census, which covered some 1,930 square miles (5,000 square kilometers) of Amur territory near Vladivostok (Russia map).
The international conservation organization WWF, the Russian Academy of Science, and the Wildlife Conservation Society announced the results yesterday at Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources in Moscow.
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"We've known for some time that Amur leopard numbers were low," said Darron Collins, managing director of WWF's program for the Amur-Heilong region.
"But this collaborative census demonstrates precisely how dangerously low the numbers are and how dire the overall situation is," said Collins, speaking from Washington, D.C.
Researchers found at least four leopard litters, which they called "a sign the population has some hope for regeneration," according to a statement.
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