Currently, leopards occupy only a quarter of their historic range, less than 17 percent of which is legally protected, researchers found.
The available habitat for Southeast Asian subspecies of leopards has declined to critically low levels, and the team suggests uplisting the IUCN threat status of North Chinese and Indochinese leopards to “Critically Endangered” and “Endangered” respectively from “Near Threatened”.
The study also found that most research efforts tend to focus on African and Indian leopards, the two subspecies that have the most remaining range among all leopards.
All’s not well for the spotted big cats.
Globally, leopards have lost more than 75 percent of their historical habitat, a new study published in PeerJ has found. And of the available range, only 17 percent is legally protected, researchers say.
So overall, all nine known subspecies of leopards seem to be in deep trouble. But some sub-species have it far worse than others, the study found. The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), North Chinese leopard (P.p. japonensis), and Arabian leopard (P.p. Nimr), for example, have lost about 98 percent of their historical range.
“It is deeply worrying how rapidly and completely leopards have vanished from former strongholds,” Luke Hunter, President and Chief Conservation Officer for Panthera, who was not directly involved in the study, told Mongabay. “This is especially concerning in China and southeast Asia where, only 10 years ago, range maps showed huge areas of forest occupied by leopards. Today, leopards in this region are reduced to a handful of small, isolated and terribly imperiled populations.”
Leopards have a reputation for being adaptable. They have been known to co-exist with people in densely-populated cities such as Mumbai in India and Johannesburg in South Africa, for example. However, despite their famed resilience and adaptability, very little is known about where leopards occur today.
To fill this gap, an international team of researchers set out to examine the distribution of all nine sub-species of leopards in the world — Amur, Arabian, Javan (P.p. melas), Persian (P.p. saxicolor), Sri Lankan (P.p. kotyia), North Chinese, Indochinese (P.p. delacouri), African (P.p. pardus) and Indian (P.p. fusca).
By scanning through available literature and talking to leopard experts, lead author Andrew Jacobson of the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London and his colleagues created historic and current distribution maps of leopards around the world. Overall, they compiled 6,000 records of leopards at 2,500 locations from over 1,300 sources.
Historically, around the year 1750 (or before the Industrial Revolution) leopards lived across nearly 35 million square kilometers (~13.5 million square miles), the team found. But today, the elusive animal occupies only a quarter of its historic range, primarily due to conversion of it’s habitat to agricultural land. Less than 17 percent of this existing range is legally protected, researchers found.
“Leopards are hardy and resilient, which is why it is so concerning that they have been lost from such a tremendous area,” Jacobson told Mongabay. “The overall decline of up to 75 percent is much more serious than I expected.”
The amount of range that has declined varies across regions. In Africa, the animal’s range seems to have declined by more than 65 percent, for example. Leopards in North Africa appear to be particularly imperiled, having lost more than 99 percent of their historic habitat.
In Asia, leopard range has declined by about 85 percent, with the greatest loss in southeast Asia, the study found. In fact, the available habitat for southeast Asian subspecies of leopards has declined to critically low levels, scientists say. Most leopard populations in this region now occur in small, isolated subpopulations.
Based on the range declines and small populations, the team suggests that the IUCN threat status of North Chinese and Indochinese leopards be uplisted to “Critically Endangered” and “Endangered” respectively from “Near Threatened”.
“The Indochinese leopard is clearly heading towards extinction and now occurs only in three isolated subpopulations,” co-author Jan Kamler, Southeast Asia Leopard Program Coordinator for Panthera, told Mongabay. “The results are shocking, and nobody was expecting this, as most governments and conservation organizations assumed leopards were still doing quite well in these regions.”
Tim Caro, professor of wildlife biology at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the study, added that the study’s results were “particularly depressing”. “Without strong action by governments, their fates are sealed,” he said.
This wide-ranging review of the leopard’s distribution and status is the most comprehensive study of its kind to date, researchers say. Yet, we still know very little about leopards, especially the subspecies that are the most threatened, they add. This lack of research, they say, may also represent a lack of conservation attention and focus.
The study found, for example, that most research efforts tend to focus on African and Indian leopards. These are the subspecies that have the most remaining range among all leopards. In contrast, researchers have largely ignored the more endangered subspecies such as the North Chinese, Sri Lankan and Javan leopards.
“I think this is simply a result of researchers focusing on those populations which are most accessible and observable,” Hunter said. “It is safe and relatively easy to study leopards in Botswana and Kenya, for example. The most imperiled populations are often in areas that are far more challenging to undertake research; Yemen is one of the two most important countries for the endangered Arabian leopard but the civil conflict there makes it virtually impossible to get any information on leopards.”
Co-author Philip Henschel, Lion Program Survey Coordinator for Panthera, added that the research bias could also be because wildlife research and conservation has a very long tradition both in Africa and in India compared to other regions. “It is therefore not surprising that most scientific publications on leopards focus on the African and Indian subspecies.”
While the study examines the leopards’ shrinking habitat, it does not attempt to estimate the global leopard population. This is because even the approximate estimates of leopard population sizes in key protected areas are still unknown or unclear, researchers say.
“While we have a pretty good idea with regards to approximate population sizes for other threatened big cats, we really simply don’t know how many leopards survive today,” Henschel said. “The main reasons are that a) leopards are harder to count due to their very secretive nature, and b) leopards have so far been under the radar of most governments and conservation organization, as everybody seemed to have assumed that most populations are doing just fine.”
But leopards are not doing fine, the study suggests. Some of the key threats to the leopard’s survival include habitat loss and fragmentation, prey depletion, conflict with people, unsustainable trophy hunting, poaching for body parts, and indiscriminate killing. And this means that more research is needed to understand how leopards are actually faring in their rapidly shrinking ranges.
The need of the hour, Henschel said, is to focus studies directly on the status and conservation of the most threatened populations, so that the findings can be used to actually save these endangered animals.
Moreover, programs that help communities coexist with the leopard are critical, Jacobson said. “Given adequate cover, prey base, some level of tolerance from the local community and protected status from the national government, leopards should be able to survive.”
Vidya Athreya, a research associate with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, who was not involved in the study, added “Leopards are very adaptable carnivores. However, just because they are adaptable does not mean they are doing okay. I would say they are hanging there by their tooth and claws.”
- Jacobson AP, Gerngross P, Lemeris Jr. JR, Schoonover RF, Anco C, Breitenmoser-Würsten C, Durant SM, Farhadinia MS, Henschel P, Kamler JF, Laguardia A, Rostro-García S, Stein AB, Dollar L. (2016) Leopard (Panthera pardus) status, distribution, and the research efforts across its range. PeerJ 4:e1974 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1974