By Alison Sherbach
She was shot in the backside, beaten with rocks, and left to die in the Barsovy National Wildlife Refuge, just two miles from the Russian village of Bamburovo. Acting on an anonymous tip, members of an anti-poaching league recovered her body on April 20. This Amur leopard was one of the last seven females living in the wild, and her demise likely brings her species one step closer to extinction.
Just one week prior, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), Wildlife Conservation Society, and Pacific Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Science released a snow tracking census. The report concluded that there are as few as 25 of these critically endangered Amur leopards (also called the Far East or Manchurian leopards) left in the wild.
Habitat loss and fragmentation from forest fires and unsustainable logging, as well as poaching have all played key roles in the disappearance of this once plentiful species, scientists say.
“Three years ago, an order from a smuggler in China resulted in the immediate killing of two leopards for illegal trade” says Yury Darman, director of WWF’s Russian Far East branch. “Fortunately, leopard bones are not in as high demand by traditional Chinese medicine as tiger bones, so most leopards are killed during hunts for hoofed animals in low visibility.”
To prevent more accidental deaths of this sort, Darman suggests creating one contiguous protected area for the leopards to replace the three scattered ones that currently exist.
Sybille Klenzendorf, director of species conservation for the WWF, agrees.
“Large mammals need to be managed on a landscape scale and have a better chance for survival when they can travel in search of food during lean times and find mates from different populations” she says. “A unified protected [area] is particularly important when a species' survival is so precarious like that of the Amur leopard.”
A unified space would require a unified budget, which would, in turn, result in better management and integrated enforcement units, says Darman. And, he adds, stronger management would also help prevent much of the illegal poaching that still takes place in the Hunchun Nature Reserve, located on the Chinese side of the border.
To some, building a safe corridor to save a species on the brink of extinction might not seem worth the expense and effort it would require.
Indeed, when asked what affect the disappearance of the Amur leopard would have on the surrounding ecosystem, Darman admits that there wouldn’t necessarily be much of a change at all.
“As [with] any other large predator, it's at the top of the food chain and impacts the number of wild ungulates (hoofed animals), raccoon dogs, and badgers. If it disappears,” he notes “its niche might be taken by semi-wild dogs.”
But that doesn’t mean Darman and others are ready to give up.
“Learning how to do conservation in a world [dominated by humans] is a challenge” admits John Seidensticker, a conservation biologist with Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. “But I think we have a moral responsibility to make sure all species survive and thrive.”
And past efforts show it can be done.
“Siberian tigers only had about 30 left in the early 1900s and now they’re coming back as a result of conservation,” says Darman. “Why should we not try to do the same for the beautiful, unique Amur leopards?”