The Far Eastern leopard steps back from the brink
The results exceeded all expectations – 48-50 individual leopards were detected, or 1.5 times more than 5 years ago.
The census produced four happy sensations and one alarming development.
The first sensation - according to census results, minimum leopard numbers were determined as 43-45 adult individuals and 4-5 cubs. In 2007, 27-34 leopards were recorded. Thus, if the slogan “Only 30 left in the wild!” was actual until quite recently, today we can say with confidence that not less than 50 Far Eastern leopards inhabit the territory of the Russian Far East. While we cannot help but be gladdened by this fact, it is no reason to let down our guard. 50 is still a critically small number for long term persistence of population.
The second sensation – the leopard has moved towards north. For many years the Krounovka River was the northern border of the leopard’s range. Three years ago a lonely male left his tracks on the territory of Poltavsky Provincial Wildlife Refuge to the north of that river. This winter a female with a cub was found there. The appearance of the new northernmost cat family is leopards’ response to the successful organization of proper control over the Poltavsky Refuge by the Directorate of Protected Areas of Primorsky Province. Under the Directorate’s management the Reserve became part of the network of protected areas “Land of the Leopard”.
The third sensation – the leopard has moved towards the seacoast. One of the litters was found by specialists in an area where leopards never used to appear: in the reeds and shrubs of a river delta. This winter there was a high concentration of hare in such habitats, and due to the deep snow roe deer moved there as well. Poachers did not realize that wild animals were concentrating there, and so a mother and a cub spent a calm and safe winter by the sea side with plenty of food.
The fourth sensation – the leopard has moved to the south. One of the leopards was found on the border with the North Korea. No cases like this were recorded since the last century. It is quite possible that the animal crosses the border and temporarily inhabits the forests of China and North Korea. This fact highlights the importance of leopard habitat conservation in North Korea.
The alarming news - the winter census revealed 23 Amur tigers living on the territory, or double the number compared to 5 years ago. This is an independent grouping from Changbaishan population, which is distinct from the main Russian Sikhote-Alin population and plays a key role in Amur tiger restoration in China. It is believe that differing habitat preferences allow these two competing predators competitors – tiger and leopard – to coexist. However, due to replacement of red deer by sika deer and low wild boar populations, the prey base of tigers and leopards in southwest Primorye has begun to more and more overlap. In such conditions, it is possible to speak about strong competition between the two rare cats – over the past years a minimum of three leopards were killed by tigers. Unfortunately, the results of the winter census added to the statistics. Tracking in 2013 revealed two cases when a tiger intentionally chased a leopard. Only advanced tree-climbing skill saved the spotted cat from the striped one. Thus, serious attention of the researchers should be focused on the problematic influence of the Amur tiger on the Far East leopard population.
The Far Eastern leopard 2013 census was conducted following a traditional methodology based on measuring print size. By recording the location of all tracks GPS-navigators and taking photos of the encountered prints it was possible to minimize the human factor and subjective assessment. Climatic conditions were not easy. On the one hand, deep snow and snow drifts obstructed the work – it was extremely difficult to move along the transects. On the other hand, deep snow and frozen snow crust forced animals to concentrate on local spots and not move extensively, thus decreasing probability of counting one and the same animal on different routes. Having fresh snow on the crust allowed for quite precise measurement of all encountered prints.
Locating litters is a not easy task, particularly under severe winter conditions. Nevertheless, field workers registered 4 females with one kitten each, and one litter that has already breaking away from its mother. This figure is considered normal for the given number of leopards, though in 2011 no less than 6 litters were counted. The information collected before the census in the fall and winter allows for the assumption that the real number of litters in 2013 is a higher then that observed on the routes.
A relatively large quantity of leopard prints were found along the border with China, but unfortunately it was not possible to conduct a simultaneous census in China. Last year, a minimum of 5 different leopards were photographed by camera traps there; Chinese specialists suggest that 8-11 cats inhabit the Hunchun, Wangqing, and Suiyang Nature Reserves, mostly in the vicinity of registered leopards in Russian border zone.
“The Far Eastern leopard, the rarest cat on the Earth, is stepping back from the brink – comments Dr. Yury Darman, Director of Amur branch WWF Russia, - we had started the recovery program in 2001 and now can be proud of almost 50 leopards in the wild. The most crucial role is played by the establishment of large unified protected area with huge state support, which covers 360 thousand hectares of leopard habitats in Russia. It is necessary now to accelerate the creation of a Sino-Russian transboundary reserve that would unify six adjacent protected areas encompassing 6 000 square kilometers and make possible the sustaining of a future population of 70-100 Far Eastern leopards and 25-30 Amur tigers”.
Census organizers express their gratitude to Russian border guards for taking active part in the census on the territory they are in charge of. They provided transportation, shared their excellent knowledge of the surveyed area and provided security along the routes.