Down To Earth speaks to Taisiia Marchenkova, a researcher in the Land of the Leopard National Park in Russia, on the Amur leopard, the ‘rarest felid in the world’
An Amur leopard in the snowy taiga. Photo: Ministry of the Russian Federation for the Development of the Far East (Ministry of the Development of the Far East) via Creative Commons
The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is the ‘rarest cat in the world’. It used to be found once across the eastern edge of mainland Eurasia — the Russian Far East, the Korean Peninsula and northern China (Manchuria). But a number of anthropogenic factors led its population to crash, also causing loss of genetic diveristy in this subspecies of leopard.
However, all is not lost yet for this enigmatic cat of the taiga. Several individuals and organisations are working to revive it. One of them is Taisiia Marchenkova, a researcher in the Land of the Leopard National Park, Russia.
Her research focuses on population ecology and genetics of the Amur leopard, as well as statistical analysis and optimisation of data processing from camera traps using artificial intelligence.
Marchenkova was a keynote speaker in the recently concluded Global Leopard Conference (March 13-17, 2023). She spoke to Down To Earth on the Amur leopard. Edited excerpts:
Rajat Ghai (RG): The Amur leopard is the world’s rarest big cat. What caused it to become so in the first place?
Taisiia Marchenkova (TM): There are several reasons. The main reason for the decrease in numbers of cat species is deforestation to make way for land cultivation, the development of large cities, roadways and rapidly increasing human populations.
These anthropogenic activities fragment the species’ range into small isolated populations which then die out. This is what has happened in this case.
The destruction of the Amur leopard’s range started in the 19th century (the expansion of Tsarist Russia into what is now the Russian Far East). It continued in the 20th century.
The destruction and loss of habitat was one thing. There was also competition for resources between people and leopards. A lot of ungulates, the leopards’ prey base, were hunted at the same time.
Leopards were also hunted for supplying their body parts to China and other countries in east Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
The mid-1990s and the early 2000s were the turning point. The population crashed to a low of 25-32 individuals. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 400 leopards spread across the Korean Peninsula, north China and the Russian Far East.
In the mid-1980s, there were three fragmented subpopulations in the Russian Far East. But by the 2000s, there was only one in the southwest part of the region.
RG: What is the current population of this subspecies? Since it is so rare, have there been instances of in-breeding in the Amur leopard? What can be done to solve that?
TM: The Amur leopard is gradually recovering. There are now 121 adult individuals in the Russian Far East whose range also extends across the Chinese border.
This has happened primarily due to intensive conservation measures. The Land of the Leopard National Park was established in 2012. It is prime Amur leopard habitat.
Locals were imparted ecological education. The habitat, that had been destroyed, was restored as was the prey base. This has helped to increase the population. The sex ratio is also improving. The sex ratio in the territory currently is 1:1.5. That is a good sign. It means that there are now enough resources available to support a growing population.
As far as in-breeding is concerned, it is to be expected in all small and isolated populations. The first genetic assessment of the Amur leopard at the end of the 20th century showed that it had the lowest genetic diversity among all leopard subspecies. Other studies have confirmed it.
Nevertheless, the Amur leopard population is now stable and fecund. For instance, one female in our area has produced five litters every two years. We also monitor the population constantly to detect any signs of in-breeding.
RG: The Amur leopard’s habitat spans the borders of three countries. Are these range countries taking any collaborative steps to stem the decline in the animals?
TM: We do collaborate with our Chinese colleagues. The Land of the Leopard National Park borders the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park on the Chinese side.
We have twice exchanged camera trap data — in 2015 and 2018. That is when both sides found that 13-15 resident leopards live only on the China side while 20-25 individuals frequent both China and Russia.
One of our future endeavours is to establish a transboundary reserve for big cats. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, we have not been able to analyse data in the last four years to make an accurate estimate of the Amur leopard population in China and Russia.
We also do not know what the situation in North Korea is as they are a closed country and there are no studies to know the status of Amur leopards there. We plan to restart exchange of camera trap data with China by the end of this year.
RG: What role does the Amur leopard play in the cultures of the people it shares its range with?
TM: The Amur leopard has often been neglected in the Russian Far East since most folklore concerns its bigger cousin, the Amur or Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). This is probably because the leopard was less formidable than the tiger owing to its smaller size and was more mysterious.
But the Amur leopard does find mention in the folklore of indigenous peoples of the region like the Udege, Nanai and Taz and also of the Chinese.
The leopard was usually considered the ‘ghost of the forest’. They were present and yet absent since they were highly secretive. In many indigenous tales, the leopard was considered an evil trickster and one who controlled the tiger, making it commit acts such as killing human beings.
People were more afraid of the leopard than the tiger due to its hidden and secretive nature. That leopards mostly moved around at night while tigers were mostly seen during daytime made them even more feared.
The taiga at night is a dangerous place and the leopard exemplified this. Even if it was just 10-20 metres away from you in the dark, you would not be able to spot it.
These attitudes are reflected to this day. The Amur tiger is the symbol of Primorsky Krai and Vladivostok. The leopard, though, is not as popular.
RG: What does the future look like for the Amur leopard?
TM: We intend to reintroduce the Amur leopard to areas of its former range from where it was extirpated. We intend to reintroduce captive leopards into the Lazovsky Reserve and the Ussurisky Reserve.
Other leopard subspecies have several subpopulations. But the Amur leopard is currently present only in the Land of the Leopard National Park. It is important that we create a reserve population in the subspecies’ historical range.
Because these are the world’s rarest cats, we will have to use captive individuals to rewild their former range.
We hope that after 20 years, the Amur leopard will be present in much of its historic range. It is our duty and our little contribution to global leopard conservation.
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