On Saturday, October 18, scientists working in southwestern Primorsky Krai, Russia under a joint project of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Institute of Biology and Soils (IBS), Russian Academy of Sciences Far Eastern Branch captured an adult female Far Eastern (Amur) leopard. The Far Eastern leopard, Panthera pardus orientalis, is perhaps the world’s most endangered big cat, with an estimated 25-40 individuals inhabiting a narrow strip of land along the Russian-Chinese border in the far southeastern corner of the Russian Federation.
The leopardess captured on Saturday, whom scientists named "Alyona," is the second female (and fourth leopard) to undergo biomedical assessment since the WCS Russia Program and IBS began working together in fall 2006. Biomedical assessments during captures allow scientists to evaluate the health status and potential effects of inbreeding depression in the tiny leopard population, which experts believe contains no more than 10-15 females.
Preliminary health analyses revealed that Alyona is in good physical condition, weighing in at 39 kg, or 85 lbs (average weight for female leopards is 30-35 kg) at an age of 8-10 years. Although she has given birth before, absence of lactation indicates that she currently has no kittens. The area where she was captured is visited by a male leopard previously captured by WCS and IBS. Specialists are continuing analysis of blood samples taken on Saturday as well as an electrocardiogram.
During captures scientists use electrocardiograms to detect heart defects in leopards, take blood samples to obtain genetic information to assess levels of inbreeding, and examine overall health, looking for any abnormalities. Three leopards captured previously (2 males and 1 female) in 2006 and 2007 all exhibited significant heart murmurs, which may reflect genetic disorders. Biomedical and genetic research is critical to determining the risks posed by inbreeding to Far Eastern leopards, and what can be done to mitigate these risks. Scientists are considering introducing individuals to supplement the current population or establishing a second population in former leopard range.
Alyona was captured on the territory of the Borisovskoye Plateau Wildlife Refuge, one of the three protected areas existing in the Far Eastern leopard’s range. These 3 territories, which together encompass approximately 50% of leopard habitat in Russia, play an important role in conservation of the world’s most northern leopard sub-species.
Capture activities are overseen by representatives of the Russian federal agency “Inspection Tiger,” a special department of the Ministry of Natural Resources.
“Scientific work to capture Amur tigers and Far Eastern leopards in this part of Primorsky Krai has always been distinguished by the participation of world-class specialists and the best in equipment and methodologies,” said Sergei Zubtsov, the head of Inspection Tiger. “I want to note that the leopard captured for medical analysis and released on October 18 represents another achievement for this highly-qualified team, and that one of the most important things is that she was not harmed at any point in the capture process. I hope that such fruitful collaboration will continue in the future.”
Over the last 100 years Far Eastern leopard numbers have been reduced via overhunting and poaching combined with a classic fragmentation-extinction process from agricultural and urban development. However, both camera-trapping and snow-tracking surveys indicate that the population has been stable for the last 30 years, but with a high rate of turnover of individuals. If inbreeding depression or disease do not “derail” this population, the potential for increasing survival rates and habitat recovery in both Russia and Northeast China is great. Given Russian and international commitment, the leopard population has great chances for recovery from the brink of extinction.
This leopard research project was begun by the WCS Russia and IBS in fall 2006, with other collaborators including the Zoological Society of London, Wildlife Vets International, and the National Cancer Institute.