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Javan leopards, the dwindling ‘guardians’ of Java’s forests

Javan leopard caught by camera trap. Image courtesy of Senjaya Mercusiana.

  • Tradition holds that the Javan leopard is a symbol of prosperity, and a guardian of forests that provide people with healthy water and fresh air.
  • However, this big cat species is critically endangered and relegated to small patches of forest scattered about the heavily populated Indonesian island of Java.
  • Mongabay spoke with biologist Hariyo “Beebach” Wibisono about its status and the conservation strategies which could be successful, if supported by officials, citizens and donors.

Hariyo “Beebach” Wibisono studies Javan leopards, the last remaining apex predator on Indonesia’s island of Java, which, with a land area about the size of Alabama, is also home to 147 million people, including in the country’s massive capital city, Jakarta, plus other metro areas.

Despite these dense urban landscapes, pockets of natural forest persist around the island, and some of these are still patrolled by Panthera pardus melas: with the extinction of the Javan tiger — last glimpsed in Meru Betiri National Park in 1976 — the critically endangered Javan leopard is the only big cat left on the island.

To get an update on this iconic species, Mongabay interviewed Wibisono via email, who shares what is currently known and makes the case for leopard conservation: “People living in Java should preserve the leopard to assure that the remaining forest ecosystems are healthy for human living. Traditionally, some Javan tribes believe that Javan leopard is a symbol of prosperity and guardian of the forests, which provide them with healthy water and fresh air.”

His responses were edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

Mongabay: What is the current population estimate for wild Javan leopards?

Hariyo Wibisono: Our most recent estimate was 320 (between 120 and 570) adult individuals based on the best available, site-specific density estimates extrapolated to the available forest habitats.

One of the remaining prime habitats of the Javan leopard on the east coast of East Java province. Image courtesy of Sintas Indonesia.

Mongabay: What kind of habitat do they need and how much habitat is left on Java?

Hariyo Wibisono: Although it depends primarily on primary and secondary forests, the Javan leopard is also highly adaptable to various types of human-modified land uses, including mixed agricultural land, production forests, and plantations.

Prior to 2000, Java had lost the largest portion of its natural forest, with only 23% of the island forested. Further, between 2000 and 2017, Java had lost nearly 70% of its forest. The highest deforestation occurred between 2000 and 2013 with 65% forest loss or nearly 5% per year, mainly due to agriculture and infrastructure developments. After such period, forest cover in Java is relatively stable with only 1% forest loss per year.

Mongabay: What are their main prey and are those populations rising or falling?

Hariyo Wibisono: Like most large cats, Javan leopard is a habitat generalist depending on a wide variety of small to medium-sized species, including Javan deer, barking deer, wild boar, Javan green peacock, various primate species and flying lemur.

Mongabay: What are the causes of conflict between Javan leopards and humans?

Hariyo Wibisono: Small and isolated habitats, and hard edges between the habitats and humans (settlements, plantations, agriculture). As a habitat generalist, Javan leopard is highly resilient to human modified land uses, which provide productive habitats for the leopard prey. As a result, the leopard often forages beyond the forest for prey. This creates overlapped areas for human and leopard activities.

When foraging for wild prey, the leopards often encounter and raid livestock raised by the forest-edge communities. Compared to tigers, Javan leopard is more cryptic, thus rarely attack humans. The most common conflict is, therefore, the fear of local communities when witnessing leopards crossing their gardens looking for prey. In that situation, the local communities often set up traps to capture the leopard.

A Javan langur, one of the Javan leopard’s preferred prey species. Image courtesy of Rizki Amalia Adinda Putri.

Mongabay: How many leopards are removed from their habitat each year, whether for the illegal wildlife trade, or otherwise?

Hariyo Wibisono: Approximately 3.2 and 1.3 leopards per year due to conflict with humans and illegal trafficking over the past 13 years, respectively. However, a recent study suggested a higher estimate of six leopards per year over the past 10 years from illegal trafficking only. Most importantly, the study also found that Javan leopard body parts have entered international illegal trafficking networks.

Mongabay: This seems like an unsustainable rate of removal given their already low population numbers. Though most are sold as stuffed mounts, many are used in rituals: are these traditional kinds of rituals, and do you think the people know the poor population status of the animals?

Hariyo Wibisono: I believe most people living in Java are not aware of the critical status of Javan leopards, except for conservation practitioners and some scholars. In fact, more people still believe that Javan tigers still exist, thus overlooking the Javan leopard.

I know only one ritual in Java named Reog Ponorogo which uses a tiger head and pelt for the ritual, but nowadays it also uses Javan leopard as a substitute, since tiger parts are becoming more difficult to obtain.

Mongabay: What should authorities do to help the Javan leopard, and what can citizens do?

Hariyo Wibisono: First of all, intensifying public awareness (e.g. social media campaigns) to mainstream Javan leopards’ critical status, strengthening inter-sectoral partnerships, and resource mobilization (e.g. funding) both from national and international sources should be the most critical strategies for the government.

Implementation of these three strategies is critical to support the following key objectives: a) strengthen the management of small and isolated habitats; b) implement a human-leopard conflict protocol; c) assessment of Javan leopard status in unknown habitats, identification of empty forests (forests without leopards or with few leopards) and repopulate these empty forests; d) update the existing Javan leopard action plan to adopt key findings of the most recent population and viability assessment.

See related: New map shows every forest matters in helping save the Javan leopard

A map showing suitable leopard habitat across the Indonesian island of Java. Dark green areas show suitable habitats where leopards are known to be present. Light green areas show landscapes predicted to be suitable for leopards, but with no confirmed record of the cats. Top right is the location of the island of Java. Image courtesy of Wibisono et al. (2018).

Mongabay: About how many areas are left that can support them, and how many of those are able to support populations in the long-term?

Hariyo Wibisono: I and my colleagues identified 29 heavily isolated landscapes suitable for Javan leopard, covering less than 9% of the island of Java. Direct evidence of Javan leopard was confirmed from 22 of these 29 landscapes. Only three national parks could support the long-term survival of the leopard by themselves, with an additional two national parks if the adjacent suitable landscapes are included. The core area index and median patch sizes of Javan leopard habitats are the lowest among all other leopard habitats across their geographical ranges, indicating not much space for the Javan leopard to live and sustain for the long run.

Mongabay: Are these areas connected at all, or is more action needed to create corridors between them?

Hariyo Wibisono: Most habitats are disconnected and heavily isolated. Establishing physical corridors is very unlikely between these habitats as they are too far from one another, and mostly separated by well-established human settlements and infrastructure. The management of Javan leopard should follow meta-population management approaches which include repopulation of empty forests, exchange of breeding individuals between subpopulations (especially breeding females) and enhancing the existing physical connectivity wherever possible.

Mongabay: Besides their rarity, what makes this animal special and worthy of pride among the citizens of Java?

Hariyo Wibisono: After the extinction of Javan tiger, Javan leopard became the only apex predator on the island, whose role is particularly important in balancing the ecosystem. Thus, from the ecological point of view, people living in Java should preserve the leopard to assure that the remaining forest ecosystems are healthy for human living. Traditionally, some Javan tribes believe that Javan leopard is a symbol of prosperity and guardian of the forests which provide them with healthy water and fresh air.

Therefore, the extinction of the Javan leopard would potentially lead to the further loss of Java’s remaining forests. Lastly, I have always believed that Indonesian biodiversity is our national living treasure. As an umbrella species, therefore, the Javan leopard represents Java’s overall biodiversity that we must save for the generations to come.

Hariyo “Beebach” Wibisono is a biologist and director of Sintas Indonesia Foundation and a research fellow at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

Banner image of a Javan leopard caught by a camera trap, courtesy of Senjaya Mercusiana.

Erik Hoffner is an editor for Mongabay, find him on Twitter via @erikhoffner.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Hear Hariyo Wibisono discuss the status of another critically endangered Indonesian big cat, the Sumatran tiger, listen here:

Citations:

Adhiasto, D. N., Wilianto, E., & Wibisono, H. T. (2020). Uncover the unrevealed data: The magnitude of Javan leopard removal from the wild. Cat News71, 5-6. Retrieved from http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=611

Gomez, L., & Shepherd, C. R. (2021). The illegal exploitation of the Javan leopard (Panthera pardus melas) and Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) in Indonesia. Nature Conservation, 39, 25-39. doi:10.3897/natureconservation.43.59399

Traylor-Holzer, K., Holst, B., Leus, K., & Ferraz, K. (2020). Conservation planning workshops for the Javan leopard (Panthera pardus melas) provisional report. Retrieved from IUCN SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group website: https://www.cpsg.org/content/conservation-planning-workshops-javan-leopard-panthera-pardus-melas-provisional-report

Wibisono, H. T., Wahyudi, H. A., Wilianto, E., Pinondang, I. M., Primajati, M., Liswanto, D., & Linkie, M. (2018). Identifying priority conservation landscapes and actions for the critically endangered Javan leopard in Indonesia: Conserving the last large carnivore in Java Island. PLOS ONE13(6), e0198369. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0198369

Wibisono H. T., Wilianto, E., Pinondang, I. M. R., Rahman, D. A., & Chandradewi, D. S. (2021). Panthera pardus melas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (in press).