Leopard Near Extinction -- Only About 30 Remain

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
April 19, 2007
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.

New Cubs Offer "Some Hope"

"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.

But experts say at least a hundred individuals are needed to ensure the cat's survival, and they are calling on China, Russia, and North Korea to cooperate in an effort to save the Amur.

Collins said each government has played a role in helping conserve the leopard, with Russia taking the lead.

"But more certainly needs to be done, and what we need now is an increase in commitment to a transboundary protected area," he said.

Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, led the press conference. He said he wanted to unify three protected areas where the leopard now lives, according to WWF. The group says it convinced the Russian government this year to change a planned oil pipeline route to avoid Amur territories.

Officials at the Russian ministry did not respond to an interview request by press time.

Poaching to Go Unpunished?

Russia is also taking some wrong steps, said Michiel Hötte, an Amur expert with the Zoological Society of London.

"The Russian Ministry of Justice wants to remove the right of [officials in nature reserves] to fine or arrest poachers," Hötte said. "This will seriously weaken reserves on which the Amur leopard depends."

He added that China is considering lifting the ban on the domestic trade in tiger parts used in traditional medicine.

"Lifting the ban would be disastrous not only for tigers but also for leopards, which are often used as substitutes for tigers in Chinese remedies," he said.

Hötte said conservationists have had very little contact with the secretive government of North Korea.

"But as far as we know," he said, "the regime does little to protect tigers and other wildlife."

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