|An Amur leopard at Colchester Zoo, England.|
|Subspecies:||P. p. orientalis|
|Panthera pardus orientalis|
|Area of distribution|
Panthera pardus amurensis
The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is a leopard subspecies native to the Primorye region of southeastern Russia and the Jilin Province of northeast China. It is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. In 2007, only 19-26 wild Amur leopards were estimated to survive. As of 2015, fewer than 60 individuals were estimated to survive in Russia and China. As of 2018, the population in the wild has climbed to around 103 individuals thanks to intense conservation efforts. The Amur leopard is the rarest big cat on Earth.
The Amur leopard differs from other subspecies by a thick coat of spot-covered fur. It shows the strongest and most consistent divergence in pattern. Its fur is pale cream-colored coat, particularly in winter. Rosettes on the flanks are 5 cm × 5 cm (2.0 in × 2.0 in) and widely spaced, up to 2.5 cm (0.98 in), with thick, unbroken rings and darkened centers. Its fur is fairly soft with long and dense hair. The length of hair on the back is 20-25 mm (0.79-0.98 in) in summer and up to 70 mm (2.8 in) in winter. The winter coat varies from fairly light yellow to dense yellowish-red with a golden tinge or rusty-reddish-yellow. It is well adapted to deep snow. The summer pelage is brighter with more vivid coloration pattern. The Amur leopard is rather small in size, with males larger than females. Males measure from 107-136 cm (42-54 in) with a 82-90 cm (32-35 in) long tail, a shoulder height of 64-78 cm (25-31 in), and a weight of 32.2-48 kg (71-106 lb). Females weigh from 25-42.5 kg (55-94 lb).
The distribution of the Amur leopard has been reduced to a fraction of its original range. It once extended throughout northeastern China, including Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces, and throughout the Korean Peninsula. Its range in Russia was dramatically reduced during the 1970s, losing about 80% of its former range. The northern boundary of its occurrence commenced on the coast of the Sea of Japan at 44°N and ran south at a distance of 15-30 km (9.3-18.6 mi) from the coast to 43°10'N. There its range turned steeply westward, north of the Suchan River basin, then north to encompass the source of the Ussuri River and two right bank tributaries in the upper reaches of the Ussuri, and westward toward the bank of Khanka Lake. In the 1950s, leopards were observed 50 km (31 mi) north of Vladivostok and in Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve. The association of Amur leopard with mountains is fairly definite, and to snow-free south-facing rocky slopes in winter. The species is confined more to places where wild sika deer live or where deer husbandry is practiced.
Today, the Amur leopard inhabits about 7,000 km2 (2,700 sq mi). The last remaining viable wild population, estimated at less than 60 individuals, lives in a small area in the Russian Province of Primorsky Krai, between Vladivostok and the Chinese border. In adjacent China, 7-12 scattered individuals are estimated to remain. In South Korea, the last record of an Amur leopard dates back to 1969, when an individual was captured on the slopes of Odo Mountain, in South Gyeongsang Province.
Leopards cross between Russia, China, and North Korea across the Tumen River despite a high and long wire fence marking the boundary. Ecological conditions along the border in the mountains are not yet monitored. In China, Amur leopards were photographed by camera traps in Wangqing and Hunchun, east Jilin Province, China. The only official North Korean government webportal reported in 2009 that some leopards were in Myohyangsan Nature Reserve located in Hyangsan County. It is likely the southernmost living group of Amur leopard.
Amur leopard numbers have been reduced via over hunting of prey and poaching combined with habitat loss from agricultural and urban development. However, both camera-trapping and snow-tracking surveys indicate that the population has been stable over the last 30 years, but with a high rate of turnover of individuals. If appropriate conservation actions are taken, there is great potential for increasing population size, increasing survival rates and habitat recovery in both Russia and China.
Amur leopards are crepuscular and usually start hunting shortly before sunset. They are active again in the early mornings. During the day, they rest and hide in caves or dense thickets, but rarely hunt. They are solitary, unless females have offspring.
They are extremely conservative in their choice of territory. An individual's territory is usually located in a river basin which generally extends to the natural topographical borders of the area. The territory of two individuals may sometimes overlap, but only slightly. Depending on sex, age, and family size, the size of an individual's territory can vary from 5,000-30,000 ha (19-116 sq mi). They may use the same hunting trails, routes of constant migration, and even places for extended rest constantly over the course of many years.
At places where wild animals are abundant, leopards live permanently or perform only vertical migrations, trailing herds of ungulates and avoiding snow. In the Ussuri region the main prey of leopards are roe and sika deer, Manchurian wapiti, musk deer, moose, and wild boar. More rarely they catch hare, badger, fowl, and mice. In Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve roe deer is their main prey year-round, but they also prey on young Eurasian black bears less than two years old.
When density of ungulates is low, leopards have large home ranges that can be up to 100 km2 (39 sq mi).
During a study of radio-collared Amur leopards in the early 1990s, a territorial dispute between two males at a deer farm was documented, suggesting that deer farms are favoured habitats. Female leopards with cubs are relatively often found in the proximity of deer farms. The large number of domestic deer is a reliable food source that may help to survive difficult times.
They can run at 37 mi (60 km) per hour, and can leap more than 19 ft (5.8 m) horizontally and up to 10 ft (3.0 m) vertically.
Sexual maturity sets in at the age of 2-3 years and ability to reproduce continues up to 10-15 years of age. Estrus lasts 12-18 days, and in exceptional cases up to 25 days. Gestation requires 90-105 days, but usually 92-95 days. The weight of a newborn cub is 500-700 g (1.1-1.5 lb). The young open their eyes on the 7th-10th day and begin to crawl on the 12th-15th day. By the second month they emerge from their dens and also begin to eat meat. Cubs begin to be weaned at three months and taught to hunt. Lactation continues for five or six months. Cubs reach independence at approximately two to three years old. They stay with their mother until they are around eighteen months to two years in age. Juveniles sometimes stay with their mother until she comes into estrus again. Until the 1970s, cubs were seen in Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve, Primorsky Krai, and in northeastern China most often from the end of March through May; litters comprised two to three cubs. In captivity some individuals have lived for 21 years.
Amur leopards breed in spring and early summer. The breeding season is in the late winter months, usually around January or February. The gestation period for the mother is 90-105 days. So their cubs are usually born April through June. One to four cubs are born. They are weaned at the age of 3 months. The young usually leave their mothers at the age of one and a half to two years. During a population census in 1997, four females found with young had only one cub each. Results of radio telemetry studies confirmed that young stay with their mother for two years. In Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve the young of two different litters were observed with their mothers at the same time.
Breeding can take place year-round, and average litter size is 2-3 cubs. Amur leopards can live up to 20 years in captivity, but the average lifespan in the wild is unknown. A male leopard radio-collared at 2-3 years of age by WCS scientists in 1994 was photographed during camera trapping surveys in 2003, proving that leopards can live more than 10 years in their natural habitat. However, results of WCS camera-trapping research indicate that mortality rates in the wild may be very high.
Amur leopards are threatened by poaching, encroaching civilisation, new roads, poaching of prey, forest fires, inbreeding, possible coexisting with disease carriers and transmitters, and exploitation of forests.
Tigers can eliminate leopards if densities of large and medium-sized prey species are low. Competition between these predators supposedly decreases in summer, when small prey species are more available. In winter, conditions are less favorable for tigers and the extent of trophic niche overlap with that of Amur leopards probably reaches its peak.
Poaching of leopards is a main threat to their survival. There are rumours but no evidence that Chinese traders buy leopard skins; no skins were confiscated at borders to China. In 14 months from February 2002 to April 2003, seven skins or part of skins were confiscated, six in Russia and one in China. Leopards are most often killed by local Russians from small villages in and around the leopard habitat. Most of these villagers hunt entirely illegally; they have no licenses for hunting nor for their guns, and they are not members of one of the local hunting leases.
In 1999, skins of poached Amur leopards were offered for $500-1,000 near a protected area in Russia.
Human induced fires are a main threat to the survival of the Amur leopard. Setting fire to fields is a habit of rural farmers who start them for a particular purpose such as improving fertility for livestock grazing, killing ticks and other insects, making scrap metals visible so that they can be easily collected, culling vegetation along train tracks, and stimulating fern growth. Young ferns are sold in shops, served in restaurants and also exported to China as a popular dish. Surveys using satellite images and GIS techniques revealed that on average 19% of south-west Primorye burns annually, and a total of 46% burned at least once in six years. Due to a long and frequent fire history, much of the land in south-west Primorye has been converted to permanent grasslands. These frequent fires cause degradation of suitable leopard habitat into unsuitable habitat. Repeated fires have created open "savannah" landscapes with grass, oak bushes and isolated trees that leopards seem to avoid, again probably because of low ungulate densities.
Large deer farms extended over thousands of hectares in Amur leopard habitat. Deer farming used to be a large-scale business; the velvet of deer antlers was sold to Asian pharmacies. The number of deer farms decreased considerably since the late 1990s.
A number of plans for economic activities in south-west Primorye were developed that posed a serious threat to the leopard's survival. A plan to build an oil pipeline from central Siberia through Primorye to the coast of the Sea of Japan has been shelved. A plan for an open pit coal mine in the heart of the leopard range was not carried out following pressure from environmentalists and the Ministry of Natural Resources. The strategic location of south-west Primorye, close to the main population centres of Primorski Krai, the Japanese Sea and the borders of Korea and China, makes it more attractive for economic activities including transport, industries, tourism and development of infrastructure. Logging is not a major threat; the use of the road network established for the transport of logs from forests increases anthropogenic pressures in unprotected leopard habitat.
An acute problem is potential inbreeding. The remaining population could disappear as a result of genetic degeneration, even without direct human influence. The levels of diversity are remarkably low, indicative of a history of inbreeding in the population for several generations. Such levels of genetic reduction have been associated with severe reproductive and congenital abnormalities that impede the health, survival and reproduction of some but not all genetically diminished small populations. Cub survival has been declining from 1.9 cubs per one female in 1973 to 1.7 in 1984 and 1.0 in 1991. Besides a decline in natural replacement, there is a high probability of mortality for all age groups as a result of certain diseases or direct human impact.
A 2006-2007 Biomedical analysis made by Wildlife Conservation Society in Russia of 3 leopards showed "evidence of potential inbreeding-associated health problems". All 3 leopards had significant heart murmurs and one even had an abnormal sperm production of forty percent. There is also low genetic diversity in the Amur Leopard consistent with inbreeding. The Wildlife Conservation Society goes on to say that more research is necessary to understand the risks of disease or inbreeding but this could be difficult since the Amur Leopard has as few as 50 adults in the wild and is Critically Endangered, which is the most severe level granted to wild animals.
The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) is an initiative of Russian and western conservation organisations to conserve the Amur leopard and Amur tiger, and secure a future for both species in the Russian Far East and Northeast China. ALTA operates across Northeast Asia under the guiding principle that only co-operative, co-ordinated conservation actions from all interested parties can save these endangered species from extinction. ALTA works in close co-operation with local, regional, and federal governmental and non-governmental organisations to protect the region's biological wealth through conservation, sustainable development and local community involvement. The Phoenix Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society provide a local framework for implementing ALTA projects, working closely with many Russian and Chinese agencies. In regards to conservation of Amur leopards, ALTA aims at retaining a leopard population of 35 adult females (100 total) in south-west Primorye and the Jilin-Heilongjiang border region; and creating a second population of 20 adult females (60 total) in the former range of the Amur leopards. Conservation projects for the Amur leopard include:
An oil pipeline planned to be built through leopard habitat was rerouted, following a campaign by conservationists.
Since 1996, the idea of reintroducing leopards in the south of Sikhote-Alin has been discussed by ALTA members. During a workshop in 2001, the outlines and principles of a plan for the development of a second population of Amur leopard in the Russian Far East was prepared. For reintroduction to be successful, one fundamental question needs to be answered: Why did leopards disappear from the southern Sikhote-Alin in the middle of the 20th century? It was recommended to assess reasons for localized extinctions, obtain support of local people, increase prey in areas proposed for reintroduction, ensure that conditions exist conducive for reintroduction in the selected area, and ensure survival of the existing population. There are two sources of leopards for reintroduction: leopards born and raised in zoos and leopards raised in a special reintroduction center passed through a rehabilitation program for life in the wild.
If this reintroduction is to succeed, it is clear that the design of the breeding and release centre, and the management of the leopards in it, must focus strongly on overcoming the difficulties imposed by the captive origin of the cats. Three necessary behaviours should be acquired prior to release: hunting and killing of live natural prey; avoidance of humans and avoidance of tigers.
In March 2009, the Minister of Natural Resources of Russia during his meeting with Vladimir Putin reassured that the ministry is planning to introduce new "imported" Amur leopards into the area and creating suitable and safe habitat for them. The government already allocated all required funds for the project.
Contiguous patches of potential leopard habitat as potential reintroduction sites were identified in the southern Sikhote-Alin. Three coastal potential habitat patches could harbour approximately 72 adult leopards.
Amur leopards are top predators which means they play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy balance of species within their habitat. This in turn influences the condition of the forest and overall ecosystem - which supplies both nature and people with food, freshwater and many other resources.
A captive population of Amur leopards was established in 1961 from nine wild-born founders. A molecular genetic survey revealed that at least two founders of the captive pedigree have genetic information more consistent with Panthera pardus japonensis than any wildborn specimens of P. p. orientalis. This observation lends support to a history of genetic admixture between Amur leopards and North Chinese leopards in the captive pedigree. The zoo population in both the American and European regions includes a considerable contribution of genes from Founder 2, which was not an Amur leopard. European Endangered Species Programme (EESP) strategy has been to manage breeding so as to minimize his contribution as far as possible while still maintaining acceptable overall levels of genetic diversity. All leopards with more than 41% Founder 2 have been excluded from breeding since 1999. This policy has resulted in an overall decrease in the prevalence of Founder 2 genes and an increase in the number of leopards with low percentage of them.
As of December 2011, 173 captive Amur leopards are in zoos worldwide. Within the EESP, 54 male, 40 female and 7 unsexed individuals are kept. In American and Canadian zoos, another 31 males and 41 females are kept within the Population Management Program.
In China, another Amur leopard captive population is in Beijing Zoo, the founders of which were from North Korea.
Since November 2008, the Tallinn Zoo has had a webcasting project. It allows Internet users to follow the domestic life of the zoo's Amur leopards in real time via three webcams, including the infrared camera showing the leopards' lair.
In 2009, the World Wide Fund for Nature asked people to adopt one of the few Amur leopards left in the wild in order to support conservation efforts. The campaign is ongoing, with a new advertisement created in 2011 and broadcast on some TV stations, including E4 (channel).
The Animal Planet documentary The Last Leopard (2008) is about the plight of Amur leopards in Russia. The television series "Wild Russia" showed a quick glimpse into the life of Amur leopards. A female Amur leopard and her cub were featured on Planet Earth episodes "Seasonal Forests" and "From Pole to Pole". The female's name is "Skrytnaya", which means 'the secretive one'. The male cub died at the age of around 18 months; he was the result of inbreeding -- the cub's father was also Skrytnaya's father.