The leopard is rarely found in cold environments and exists mostly in the savannas of Africa and the jungles of Southeast Asia. However, in the extreme northern part of the leopard’s range, a rare subspecies of this cat lives in the temperate forests and harsh winters of the Russian Far East. Known as the Far Eastern or Amur leopard, this animal is the world’s most endangered big cat, with only 25-40 individuals left in the wild. Cold and deep snows have prevented the leopard’s successful colonization to the north, while in the south, poaching and intensive development have practically eliminated leopards from China and Korea. Today leopards are found only in a thin strip of land along the Russian-Chinese border.
Population and Distribution:
The range of the Far Eastern, or Amur, leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) originally extended across Northeast China, the Korean peninsula, and the southern third of Primorsky Krai, Russia. Today, however, only an estimated 25-40 leopards remain in a thin sliver of habitat in Southwestern Primorsky Krai, along the Chinese border, with a few individuals wandering into China.
Far Eastern leopard numbers have been reduced via overhunting 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.
Far Eastern leopards are much smaller than tigers, with males weighing 50-60 kg, and females a lighter 30-35 kg, with body length reaching about 1.5 m. Though the Far Eastern leopard is similar in stature and strength to other leopards, there are differences between this northernmost subspecies and its cousins to the south. Far Eastern leopards have longer limbs, allowing them to walk in the snow. The color of their fur changes seasonally, from a reddish yellow in the summer to a light yellow in the winter. The length of their fur also can change with the temperature, from 2.5 cm in the warmer months to 7 cm during the coldest times of the year.
Reproduction and Life Span:
Breeding can take place year round, and average litter size is 2-3 cubs. Far Eastern 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.
Preliminary results from camera trapping suggest that Amur leopard home ranges overlap considerably. Females maintain home ranges that vary in size from 40 to 100 sq km, while males can have territories as large as 400 sq km.
Far Eastern leopards live in temperate deciduous and coniferous-deciduous broadleaf forests, and their tracks are often found on ridge tops several hundred meters in elevation. Snow cover is a limiting factor, and it appears that leopards cannot survive further north, where snow is too deep in the winter. Forest cover is important to leopards, yet much of their habitat in Russia has been converted into unsuitable savannah-like grasslands by annual fires.
A WCS camera-trap photo of a Far Eastern leopard. WCS Russia has conducted camera-trapping in the leopard's range since 2002, when we piloted this methodology in Russia. © WCS 2002
Leopards prey on sika deer and roe deer, and occasionally wild boar but small mammals, including weasels, badgers, birds, and mice make up a significant portion of their diet, especially in the summer months.
The Far Eastern leopard is in grave danger of extinction due to numerous factors, including habitat degradation, poaching and prey depletion, inbreeding and disease, and competitive interactions with tigers.
Ongoing development programs including gas pipeline plans, improved and expanding road networks, railway development, expansion of the electricity grid, and mineral/coal extraction are reducing and degrading available Far Eastern leopard habitat. Overharvest of timber and illegal logging are also common.
Fires are probably the greatest threat to leopard habitat. Fires rarely occur naturally in this part of Russia, which has high rainfall totals and lush forest vegetation. However, annual human-caused fires are turning forests into grasslands and savannahs, which are not suitable for leopards. Research conducted by WCS, Tigris Foundation and Tigis has shown that in the period from 1996 to 2003, 46% of potential leopard habitat in Russia burned at least once (3,426.2 km2), and between 12 and 22% of this territory burned each year. These are probably some of the highest percentages in all of Russia. Such frequent fires, even though they are only brush fires, slowly kill off existing trees, and prevent seedling trees from establishing themselves.
Poaching and prey depletion:
Leopards are poached for their skins and possibly bones as well. Hunters poach leopards to eliminate competition for deer and wild boar, and locals sometimes kill leopards in retaliation if leopards prey on domestic animals. Poaching of leopard prey is potentially a more significant threat than poaching of leopards themselves. The leopard’s range is easily accessible and includes very popular hunting grounds, leading to an abundance of hunters and poachers in the forest. Poachers include relatively rich Russians as well as poor local villagers.
Inbreeding and disease:
The Far Eastern leopard population has low genetic diversity, which could affect reproduction rates and survivorship of the population. There are also a host of domestic and wild carnivores co-existing with leopards that could be disease carriers and transmitters. Biomedical analyses conducted by WCS for three leopards in 2006-07 indicated initial evidence of potential inbreeding-associated health problems: all 3 individuals had significant heart murmurs, and one leopard had greater than 40% abnormal sperm production. However, more research is needed to understand the risks of disease or inbreeding for this sub-species.
While leopards and tigers co-exist throughout Asia, the stresses of living in a northern environment may make competition between tigers and leopards a significant factor for continued leopard survival in Russia, creating a difficult conservation challenge. Research indicates some spatial separation between leopards and tigers, suggesting that leopards may avoid areas inhabited by tigers. There have also been documented kills of Far Eastern leopards by Amur tigers.