WCS’s Far Eastern leopard project has documented what is likely the newest addition to the highly endangered population of Far Eastern leopards inhabiting Southwest Primorsky Krai: a small leopard cub, thought to have been born at the end of December. Using digital Panthera camera traps, in February WCS specialists obtained a photograph of the two-month old and its mother leaving and re-entering a cave, where the cub would have spent its early days protected from the harsh winter weather and predators.
We were able to make this discovery because the leopard’s habitat in the Russian Far East has one thing that the rest of global leopard range is lacking: snow – a perfect medium for preserving wildlife tracks. For these animals, winter can be a difficult time of year, but for us this season brings the usually elusive wildlife to our attention. Snow-tracking provides us with crucial evidence about the behaviour and movement patterns of wildlife in our study area. If we see a fresh tiger or leopard prints, take a few measurements which allow us to determine if it is a male or female. We will usually follow the tracks backwards, recording the route that the animal took through the snow, collecting scats and making note of where the animal rested or scent-marked a tree.
On a frigid day in early February, Alexander Rybin and I drove along the Malaya Elduga River basin, looking for a tiger or leopard track. We were in luck: fresh leopard tracks descended the slope and cut across the road. We got out of the car for a quick measurement – the width of the print was 5.5 cm, indicating that this individual was an adult female. The sun was shining on a beautiful crisp winter day; it was still the morning and we had plenty of time, so we decided to follow the tracks backwards. Walking in the leopard’s tracks, we reached the top of the hillside and were led to a cave – small enough to hide away a young leopard. Suspecting that this could be a den, we quickly and quietly set up an automated digital camera trap and evacuated the area. Four days later, driving along the same road, we saw that the female had returned – her paw prints overlapped our boot tracks. Slowly we drove further on the road and then, there it was: the perfect miniature leopard paw print in the snow, alongside that of the adult female. They were walking away from the cave and therefore away from our camera trap. We raced back up the hillside to retrieve the camera, hoping the camera might have captured a photo of this cub. The journey back to the base, where we could download the photos, seemed to take forever; but at least we did not have to wait days or weeks to develop the photos as we did from the old-style camera traps. Since the start of the project in 2006 we have been waiting for this momentous occasion: a photo of a leopard cub. We had tears in our eyes as we looked at the photos of this small cub. About the size of a large domestic cat, it is no more than two months old and still too small to identify as a male or female.
This is exciting evidence of reproduction from the last remaining population of 30 Far Eastern leopards. By continuing our work using camera-traps and snow-tracking, we hope to be able to follow the development of this little one. This data will improve our knowledge of leopard ecology and inform leopard recovery plans to secure the journey ahead for the next generation of Far Eastern leopards.
- Samantha Earle, the Far Eastern Leopard Project Co-Coordinator