It's not often conservationists celebrate the news that there are only 50 members of a species left. But when there were only 30, five years ago, then, yes, bring out the bubbly—or in the case of the Amur leopard in far eastern Russia, pour the vodka?
Scientists with World Wildlife Fund Russia, and The Russian National Accademy of Sciences, have just finished looking at their data from this year's snow track leopard census in the Russian Province of Primorsky Krai, between Vladivostok and the Chinese border. The good news makes it seem like the weeks spent at the frozen edge of the world, crawling around looking for leopard prints in the thigh-high snow, may just have been worth it.
The Amur leopard, a sub-species of the more commonly known leopard of the African Savannah, is arguably the rarest big cat out there and possibly one of the most beautiful. It has icy, blue-green eyes, long, slender legs for bounding through the deep snow and a magnificent fluffy winter coat, in, well, you guessed it, leopard print. Amur leopards can leap ten feet into the air and twice that far along the snow. They live alongside the Siberian tiger in the eastern most reaches of Russia's boreal forest.
In addition to a 65 percent increase in the past few years, the census also revealed the leopards are expanding their territory to places they haven't been seen for decades.
Some leopards, including a mother and her cub, have moved north, across the Krounovka River, into Poltavsky Provincial Wildlife Refuge, which has just recently joined the "Land of the Leopard" protected area network. Another mother and cub were observed along the coast, where no leopards have been seen in recent memory, and a male appears to be flirting with the border of North Korea—the first sighting that far south in a century.
The only troubling news from the otherwise sunny statistics is that the population of the Amur tiger appears to be growing in the region as well. While this tiger was once as endangered as the leopard, with only 40 left in the wild half a century ago, its population has rebounded magnificently and may now pose a threat to the still-fragile leopard community.
The Amur tiger population in the area has doubled from five years ago. While these big cats should, in theory, be able to live side by side, dwindling numbers of their preferred prey species means that competition between the snow-loving felids is heating up. In the past couple years, at least three Amur leopards have been killed by the tiger, and paw prints found in the snow this year show evidence of leopards being chased by their bigger striped cousin.
"The Far Eastern leopard, the rarest cat on the Earth, is stepping back from the brink," said Dr. Yury Darman, Director of Amur branch WWF Russia. "We started the recovery program in 2001 and now can be proud of having almost 50 leopards in the wild."
"It is now necessary to accelerate the creation of a Sino-Russian trans-boundary reserve that would unify six adjacent protected areas encompassing 6,000 square kilometres and make the goal of a sustainable population of 70-100 Far Eastern leopards a realistic one," he added.
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Joanna M. Foster writes about the environment and energy for the New York Times, Popular Science and OnEarth Magazine among others. She has traveled extensively in Africa and India and is passionate about conservation and development issues, especially as they are impacted by climate change. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, but dreams of Kenya.