Land of the Leopards

The world’s rarest cats are rebounding in Russia, thanks to the creation of a new national park.

Crows scatter and a magpie hops into the branches of a Korean pine, chattering excitedly. Something has disturbed their meal. A quick scan of the hillside reveals nothing: just a wind-blown stirring of leaves over the shrinking patches of snow. Birds spook easily up in these winter forests.

Then on cue, a large cat ghosts into view among the dark tree trunks. It pauses to sniff the breeze then pads silently forward over the rocks and fallen logs. It’s a leopard: that lithe, low-slung frame and long tip-curled tail are unmistakable—as is the telltale spotted coat, almost invisible against the mosaic backdrop of snow, shadow, and leaf-litter.

But this leopard also seems unlike any that a safari-goer might recognize. Its coat is much thicker, for a start, and its rosettes larger and wider spaced. It is, in fact, an Amur leopard: a separate race confined to the temperate forests of the Amur-Heilong region of eastern Russia and northeast China, where that luxurious pelt is essential protection against snowbound winters. While taxonomists might classify it within the same species (Panthera pardus) as its African and South Asian cousins, even to the casual observer it looks a very different beast. 

The leopard steps forward to the roe deer carcass, wedged among the rocks where she dragged her prey two days earlier. She looks back along the trail and coughs discreetly. Three small whiskered faces emerge, and her six-month-old cubs scamper over the rocks to greet her. She steps back and allows them to feed.

It’s a heart-warming scene of health and productivity. And yet, although the Amur leopard is admirably adapted to its environment, a fur coat only gets you so far. With just 70 individuals remaining in the wild, this is the rarest wild feline on the planet. This particular family of four constitutes 5.7% of the global population. Small wonder that in 1996 the cat was classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered. It is an animal on the brink.

Land of the Leopard National Park, Russia

It is also exceptionally elusive, which is why this thrilling encounter is visible only on a video clip. Hidden cameras, set up by a Russian research team, have filmed the leopard family for the benefit of science and conservation. Not only does this provide vital data: it has also produced a wild soap opera, Spotted Family, that has gripped TV viewers across Russia, generating new levels of interest in the cats and concern for their future.

This reality might disappoint any would-be leopard-whisperers, who hope to track one down for their own private viewing. Unfortunately, observing these cats in the flesh is a privilege that not even the researchers—who spend years working with them—can expect. Tracks, kills, territorial scrapings and, now, video images are what they have to rely on. 

“This is the only view you’ll get,” confirms Becci May, Program Manager for WWF–UK, which is working with both the Russian and Chinese conservation authorities. She relates how last year, while hiking through Russia’s Land of the Leopard National Park—the cat’s last stronghold—she and her Russian colleagues found a leopard pugmark inside a cave. “It was about three days old,” she recalls. “It was very exciting.”

Observing these cats in the flesh is a privilege that not even the researchers—who spend years working with them—can expect.

The Amur leopard is among the smallest of nine races of leopard and the only one adapted to a cold climate. Males stand some 25 to 31 inches (64 to 78 cm) at the shoulder and weigh around 71 to 106 pounds (32.2 to 48 kg)—about the size of a large German shepherd. Females are about 20% smaller. Whatever its dimensions, this is a formidable predator. Adults take prey as large as full-grown sika deer and wild boar, though will hunt down anything from hares to badgers. Their only serious natural enemy in the forest is the Amur tiger, the largest of all cats, to which they give a wide berth.

Natural enemies, however, are not the leopard’s principal problem. Its catastrophic decline during the twentieth century was due to our species. People hunted the cat for its valuable pelt and body parts. They persecuted it as ‘vermin’ for killing deer and livestock—while themselves hunting out the deer, wild boar and other prey species on which it depended. They felled, degraded, and burned down its forests. And they sliced up its territory with railways, fences and lethal highways.

Today this beleaguered cat occupies an area of just 2,500 square km (965 square miles), an area smaller than Rhode Island. This represents less than 3% of its historic range, which formerly encompassed large swathes of northeastern China and eastern Russia, plus the Korean Peninsula. The last individuals are today confined to the Russian Province of Primorsky, south of Vladivostok, with a handful also surviving in the adjacent Jilin province of northeast China. It is here that the last-ditch battle to save the species is being fought.

Land of the Leopard National Park
Sea of Japan

The good news, however, is that the conservationists at last appear to be getting somewhere. In 2007 the population had fallen to an all-time low of just 35 animals and extinction loomed. Today’s accepted figure of 70 and rising, while still horribly precarious, represents a turning of the tide. Russia’s establishment in 2012 of the Land of the Leopard National Park—offering food, habitat and security—has been critical to this success. 

But now the park is reaching its carrying capacity. And this is why a plan to reintroduce the cat to Lozovsky Reserve, a separate protected enclave to the northeast, could be a vital new step in reviving the animal’s fortunes. Leopards died out in this area some 30 years ago. Today the conditions are ripe for its return, with the habitat restored and prey populations burgeoning. A new population here would take the pressure off Land of the Leopard, spreading the genetic load of the species, and could pave the way for further expansion elsewhere. “The first task is accomplished: the wild Amur leopard population is stable and growing,” explains Yury Darman of WWF-Russia. “But it is still on the brink. This reintroduction program is a historic moment.”

WWF first recommended reintroduction at the International Amur Leopard Conference back in 1996. “It was developed initially as a last resort,” explains John Barker, head of WWF-UK’s India and China program. Back then the population was considered too small to risk such an uncertain venture. But both the conservation of Amur leopards and the science of reintroducing predators have since moved forward. In 2015 the project—a collaboration between the Russian government and numerous partners, including WWF, IUCN and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA)—finally received the green light. “It’s all systems go now,” says Barker.

Not that reintroduction will be easy. It will involve taking captive leopards from zoos, as conservationists daren’t expose the few remaining wild individuals to the hazards of capture and transportation. Young leopards bred from these captive animals will be raised in a special breeding center inside the reserve, and the cubs chosen for reintroduction must pass rigorous tests, proving that they can hunt in the wild, and that they still retain the “panic response” fear of humans. The facilities are now in place in Lozovsky and scientists hope to have two or three breeding pairs established by the end of 2017. “The biggest challenge,” warns Barker, “will be the capacity of the cubs to adapt to living in the wild.” 

This ambitious project vindicates years of grueling groundwork by Russian conservationists, who for decades have pursued what often seemed a lost cause. Their first challenge was just trying to find out how many leopards, if any, were left. It was a tough challenge: often passing weeks alone, trekking huge distances on snowshoes in search of tracks, sometimes spending the night with only the bows of a spruce tree for cover. 

More recently a battery of camera traps, carefully situated along key leopard corridors, have done much of the research work, allowing scientists to identify the cats from their unique individual markings and so monitor their progress. Today, more than 200 camera traps are keeping the remaining Amur leopards under constant surveillance, and all individual cats—their behavior, movements and family history—are well known to the research teams.

The more the scientists have learned, the better they’ve been able to understand and address the causes of the leopard’s decline. Conservation groups such as WWF have been able to support the local teams with funding and expertise. Today, the forests are safe from illegal logging and the deer are returning. Meanwhile, proper training and the latest GPS technology have helped parks staff cut the number of forest fires in half, and rangers—with the help of stiffer federal laws for offenders—are gaining the upper hand in efforts to stop poaching. 

In China, where the remaining leopard population stands at just 10–15 animals, things are slowly catching up. In Wangqing Nature Reserve, the cat’s last refuge, WWF has been helping the authorities restore forests and crack down on illegal logging of Korean pine, while also reducing poaching and increasing prey populations. And there’s a new spirit of co-operation. Six months ago, the Russian government signed an agreement with Beijing University that enabled, among other things, the sharing of camera trap images. “This last year, for the first time, they’ve really gotten together,” enthuses May. “Now they can work out which animals are crossing the border.”

Make no mistake: the Amur leopard is still on the brink. With such a tiny population, it can take just one event—an outbreak disease, for instance—to tip the balance back towards extinction. October 2015 saw a setback when a car ran down a male leopard named ‘Meamur’ on a Russian highway. This individual, who was named by Russian rock band Mumiy Troll, was a national celebrity. More significantly, he was also in his breeding prime. “Meamur was seen as the new king,” explains Barker. “It was a great shame.”

Another new challenge for the leopards is competition from tigers. The larger cats, whose fortunes are also looking up, hijack leopard kills and have been seen on at least two occasions killing their spotted neighbors. Leopards in some areas appear to be taking to higher ground, leaving the valleys to the tigers. All the more evidence that both cats need more safe room in which to roam.

Ultimately, though, it will come down to people. The communities that make their living in this remote corner of the world must be prepared to share their forests with the big cats. In Russia, it seems, they are already onside. “People here have been living with predators for centuries,” explains May, “so there is an existing relationship.” And the lives of these leopards, broadcast on TV like those of reality stars, have gripped the nation: even Putin himself has lent public support. 

In China, however, people may yet need more persuading. An outreach program in the Heilongjiang region is working to convince locals that leopards are worth more than just their pelts. Meanwhile, conservation cooperatives are helping develop more sustainable harvesting of natural resources, such as Korean pine nuts, and creating employment around the parks—including work as park rangers. 

The future for the Amur leopard remains uncertain. “I think it is maybe too early to really use the word success,” says French photographer Emmanuel Rondeau, one of very few people to have photographed Amur leopards in the wild. “The right word is hope.” But 2016, undeniably, sees a potential for recovery that was unimaginable just a decade ago. If the population continues to rise, and if new horizons such as Lozovsky open up, there is indeed every hope that this most enigmatic of big cats will claw back a firm foothold on the forest wilderness from which it so nearly disappeared. 

Mike Unwin

Mike Unwin is a freelance natural history and travel writer based in the UK. Winner of UK Travel Writer of the Year 2013, his books for both adults and children include A Visitor's Guide to Southern African Wildlife (Bradt), 100 Bizarre Animals (Bradt), and The Atlas of Birds (Bloomsbury).

Emmanuel Rondeau

Emmanuel Rondeau is a filmmaker and a photojournalist specializing in conservation issues. His latest photo stories are mainly focused on big cats, like jaguars in Costa Rica and the return of the lynx in France. His photographs have won awards in numerous international competitions like BigPicture, Nature Image Awards and the Montana International Film Festival.

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