Wildlife expert explains efforts to save the Amur leopards

Amur leopard in the wild
Barabashevskii is the dominant male Amur leopard in the Kedrovaya Pad nature reserve in southeastern Russia. He is one of about 10 Amur leopards living in that region.
Photo courtesy of the World Wildlife Fund

Two Amur leopards, among the most endangered animals in the world, were born at the Minnesota Zoo on Tuesday. Zoo officials said the breeding efforts are a key part of the growing effort to save the Amur leopard from extinction.

The cats once roamed across northeastern China and the Korean Peninsula, but logging, forest fires, and farming destroyed 80 percent of its habitat in the 1970s and early 1980s. There are now fewer than 40 Amur leopards living in the wild. About 300 Amur leopards live in zoos around the world, including 90 leopards in U.S. zoos.

Despite the bleak numbers, conservationists are hoping to save the species from extinction.

Sybille Klenzendorf, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund's Species Conservation Program, said the Russian government's decision to create a national park devoted to the rare species is a promising first step.

Conservationists also hope to release captive-born Amur leopards into their natural habitat along the Russia-China border within the next several years.

Klenzendorf spoke with MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran about the effort to save the rare cat from extinction. An edited transcript of that conversation is below.

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Madeleine Baran: How endangered is this leopard? What I've read is that less than 40 are believed to exist in the wild at this point.

Sybille Klenzendorf: That's correct. The Amur leopard is the rarest large cat in the world. There's only about 25 to 40 left in the wild. Those cats are in what we call the Russian Far East. It's in the furthest part of Russia that you can go, next to Korea and China. And the reason why it's so rare is it has experienced some enormous hunting pressure for its fur and has declined rapidly.

And also, what they eat, deer and wild pig, have been heavily hunted in that region, too. And the lower (the population) got, the more vulnerable it is now to forest fires that are set every year for clearing for agriculture, and that spills over into their forests. So it's at a stage where there are few individuals left, and the pressures around them are enormous.

But WWF has been working in the Russian Far East since the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart, and we've seen some great progress since then. Especially recently, we've had very high political engagement in Russia on Amur leopard conservation.

Just last month, actually, in April, we had one of the few national parks established in Russia declared especially for Amur leopard conservation. It's called the Land of the Leopard, and it was founded also with an enormous financial investment. The Russian government is putting $16 million in for its establishment and also its operations, which is really unprecedented, that commitment we've seen from the Russian government.

And at the same time, we've also seen really a great expansion of Amur leopards on the Chinese side right next to the border. So it's a great sign of Amur leopard populations increasing and also getting back into China.

Baran: Is the national park in the same area where the leopards already were living?

Klenzendorf: Yes. WWF has been working there for the last ten years getting this park established especially for Amur leopard conservation because there were fragmented little bits of protected areas around the leopard range, but no unified large national park that really protects the core of the remaining breeding females of the leopard population. So this national park is established especially for that.

Baran: How large is it?

Klenzendorf: It's 650,000 acres. So it's a substantial size for the remaining Amur leopards. We estimate there are about 10 breeding animals within that park, about a quarter of the population. And on the other side, the Chinese also have a national park right next to it. So it's kind of a trans-boundary area that really is providing a great leaping point for expanding the population again.

Baran: Given how few of these animals are left, is this national park going to be enough to increase the population to the point where they're not on the threshold of extinction anytime soon?

Klenzendorf: No, this park won't be the single solution. The Chinese side has some very good habitat left, but there are very few animals. We know that if they're protected on that side and they have enough to eat, if there's enough deer or boar, they can really increase rapidly.

And we've seen the same situation actually with Amur tigers, which were about the same number, about 40, in the 1940s, and today, they're back up to 450. So we've seen this recovery of large cats with other examples, and that's why we're really hopeful this can happen because after all, they're a cat, and they can reproduce very quickly.

The Amur leopard is actually the only large cat where captive re-introduction is planned, because the numbers are so low. And so if re-introduction happens in the next five years or so, while focusing on restoring that habitat with enough prey, then we are hopeful that there will be a pretty fast increase to 80 or 100 animals in a short time.

Baran: So, introducing the captive-bred leopards is something that's being planned?

Klenzendorf: Yes. There is a captive re-introduction plan that has been drafted with a variety of organizations and the government and that is being reviewed by the Russian government right now. There should be a decision fairly soon on how to proceed on that.

Baran: Is it realistic to think that these animals that are now being bred in captivity, like the leopards in our zoo in Minnesota, that they might in their own lifetime be living in the wild?

Klenzendorf: There are 300 Amur leopards left in zoos around the world, and that some of those will be chosen for a captive breeding program. What will probably happen is they will be bred in a semi-wild environment, and then their offspring will be the ones that are actually truly wild in the future. Since we haven't actually ever re-introduced a large cat back into the wild, this will be also a first trial (to see) how that goes.

Baran: Is it legitimate for zoos, then, to be breeding these leopards, or is the focus really on the habitat and the species that are already there?

Klenzendorf: Zoos definitely play a role in keeping genetic diversity, and, if necessary, are available for captive reintroduction, but the role of zoos is larger than that. The role of zoos is in educating the public and basically getting the next generation of conservationists excited about nature and animals. It's about providing also funding for wild population recovery. So there's a whole bunch of roles that the zoo community plays in wild conservation, too.

I actually had the fortune of visiting some of the communities in the leopard area, and just the local pride in the local communities for having leopards still in their backyards.

We have an Amur leopard festival every year that has become very popular with local communities. The children get very involved and dress up like leopards. So the communities there themselves have said, 'These animals are the symbol for our nature that we have in our backyard, and if we can't save them, such a beautiful, charismatic animal, then we are in trouble ourselves.'

So it's not just us here in the United States saying, 'You should save those leopards.' It's those local communities themselves that are very much behind saving this animal that symbolizes their life.

More information about Amur leopards is available at the World Wildlife Fund.

This video footage from an Amur leopard survey revealed a total of 12 leopards in Russia's Primorsky Province, located between the Sea of Japan and the Chinese border. Courtesy World Wildlife Fund.