The Amur Leopard Reintroduction Program launched in Primorye
The world’s last remaining in the wild Amur leopards can only be found in the Southwest Primorye. Over the past 15 years thanks to joint efforts their numbers were doubled from 30 to 60 individuals. The “Land of the Leopard” National Park, established in 2012, stands as a guarantor to preserve and further increase this isolated population. The area of the national park including “Kedrovaya Pad” Nature Reserve and the buffer zone protects 70% of the remaining habitats of the rare cat.
“The first task is accomplished: the wild Amur leopard population is stable and growing, - comments Yury Darman, PhD, the head of WWF Russia Amur branch, distinguished ecologist of the Russian Federation. - However, it is obvious for the experts that it is still on the brink. A single epizootic disease is enough to erase this handful of leopards from the planet. Therefore, the creation of the reserve leopard population in southern Sikhote-Alin, which used to be a historical habitat of the Amur leopard half a century ago, turns up a vital need. I see the launch of the Reintroduction Program which specialists were dreaming about over almost 20 years, and WWF experts made a lot of efforts for its preparation, as a historical moment in the life of the Amur leopard population”.
For the first time the idea of the reintroduction (restoration of lost wild populations) was discussed by the experts in 1996 in Vladivostok at the International Amur Leopard Conference initiated by WWF. At the same time a working group was formed to develop a “National Strategy for the Amur Leopard Conservation in Russia”. For more than 10 years this document, signed in 1998, defined the priorities and measures for the rare cats conservation, most of them were implemented, but the reintroduction of animals has not yet been launched. Five years ago, together with leading experts WWF Russia took the initiative of editing and publishing the draft of the updated Strategy for Amur Leopard Conservation adopted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation at the end of 2013. This document became the background for the development of the Action Plan and the Amur Leopard Reintroduction Program, which was included in the list of orders of President Putin on the conservation of the Amur tiger and leopard.
The analysis of the remaining habitat in the former Amur leopard home range showed that the most promising for the resettlement are the coastal areas of the Sea of Japan in the Lazovsky and Olginsky districts of Primorsky Province (Southern Sikhote-Alin). The total area of the potential land is 7,000 square kilometers, including 1,400 square kilometers under strict protection of the established network of protected areas, including “Chernye Skaly” and “Vasilkovsky” Wildlife Refuges, “Zov Tigra” National Park and Lazovsky Nature Reserve. The latter being a federal government agency, was selected for the creation of the Reintroduction Center.
It is critically important that no leopards will be extracted from the wild for the creation of a reserve population. The residents of the new home will be purebred animals from zoos around the world. The litter of leopards from the Reintroduction Center will be trained by a specially developed program. And only those little “pupils” who pass the survival test, including the demonstration of excellent hunting skills and panic fear of human, will be released into the wild.
The program is oriented for at least 12 years, with the first releases on 3-4 year of its implementation. It is expected that in the future the leopards will be able to freely move from Lazovsky Nature Reserve to settle in the coastal areas of Southern Sikhote-Alin, where a second reserve population out of 50-60 Amur leopards will be formed.
The task is incredibly difficult, with greater risks, but it was welcomed by WWF supporters from many countries, as well as by the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN and by the Association of European and US Zoos.