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Study: Snares claim another local extinction as Cambodia loses its leopards

Camera-trap image of a leopard.

Camera-trap surveys in Cambodia revealed that leopard numbers declined even as law enforcement efforts increased. Now, the subspecies’ population is considered functionally extinct, if not fully extirpated, from the country. Image courtesy of Panthera/WildCRU/WWF Cambodia/FA.

  • Researchers say the Indochinese leopard is functionally extinct in Cambodia after a 2021 camera-trap survey failed to capture a single individual from what was once thought to be the country’s last viable population of the big cat.
  • The study points to hunting as the most significant contributor to the decline of the subspecies, noting that the number of snares and traps observed in the study area increased despite years of law enforcement efforts.
  • Experts have called for focused conservation measures in the critically endangered subspecies’ remaining strongholds in Peninsular Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Years of law enforcement to tackle rampant snaring and poaching have failed to halt the loss of Cambodia’s last remaining Indochinese leopard population, according to a recent study.

The researchers believe that while a few individual Indochinese leopards (Panthera pardus delacouri) may still linger in Cambodia’s forests, the country no longer has a viable population of the subspecies.

“Given the current population status and myriad of threats, it is pretty certain that the Indochinese leopard now is functionally extinct in Cambodia,” study author Susana Rostro-Garcia, a scientist with the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and the NGO Panthera, told Mongabay in an email. “Regrettably, the population status and trajectory of the Critically Endangered Indochinese Leopard in the [Eastern Plains Landscape] suggest that population recovery in this priority site is unlikely to occur.”

Researchers conducted seven camera-trap surveys in Cambodia’s Eastern Plains between 2009 and 2019, revealing that the leopard population declined by 82% during that time. A further survey in 2021 found no leopards. (Individual leopards were caught on camera in Cambodia’s eastern highlands in 2022.)

The Indochinese leopard is critically endangered and its range has shrunk massively to as little as 2-6% of its former size. Cambodia’s population was considered a priority for conservation as one of the last viable, breeding populations, leaving remaining strongholds in Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar.

A snare.
Researchers say that rampant snaring — predominantly driven by demand for meat from species such as wild pigs and muntjac deer — is behind the decline of Cambodia’s leopards, following a similar pattern as in Laos and Vietnam. A past report by WWF and TRAFFIC estimated that millions of snares are present in Southeast Asia, threatening multiple species. Image courtesy of Milo Putnam/Re:wild.

Hunting for the wildlife trade is considered the major driver behind the leopard’s decline in the midst of a snaring crisis in Southeast Asia that threatens multiple species, including Cambodia’s clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) and a host of other wild cats.

A massive increase in traps and hunting is the most likely cause of the Indochinese leopard’s demise in Cambodia, the researchers say; the discovery of lethal traps substantially increased during the study period. Other factors, including infrastructure development and illegal logging, compounded the threat.

Populations of other species, such as sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) and hog badgers (Arctonyx collaris) — both known to be sensitive to snaring — also declined during the study period and were not found in the final camera-trap survey in 2021, according to the study.

Emiel de Lange, a technical adviser with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cambodia, who was not involved in the study, agreed that snaring is likely the main cause of the leopard’s population decline. “Data from other [protected areas] show similar trends for species vulnerable to snaring, while other drivers like land use change are less significant in the study area,” he told Mongabay.

“This is a big deal, because now both tigers and leopards are extirpated from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and more species will soon follow if nothing is done to address the snaring,” said Jan Kamler, a co-author on the paper with WildCRU.

Law enforcement alone cannot halt snaring, say experts, and a holistic approach is needed to reduce demand for wild game and protect wildlife. Conservation scientist Susana Rostro-Garcia says urgent conservation action focused on the Indochinese leopard is needed to ensure it doesn’t go extinct across its range. Image courtesy of Panthera/WildCRU/WWF Cambodia/FA.

Law enforcement increases, leopard numbers decrease

Leopard numbers in Cambodia’s Eastern Plains dwindled despite increasing law enforcement efforts to remove snares and increase patrols, the researchers say, with interventions either too late or insufficient to halt the scale of the threat.

“Regular law enforcement” alone can’t stem the snaring crisis and protect Cambodia’s wildlife, Rostro-Garcia said, noting that efforts to reduce hunting pressure by tightening enforcement also failed to halt the decline of leopards in Laos and Vietnam.

WCF’s de Lange agreed that “more of the same” conservation enforcement-focused action is unlikely to work. “Decades of effort by NGOs to encourage and support law enforcement effort have sadly had little effect, as these efforts do not address the root social issues contributing to biodiversity loss,” he wrote in an email.

“Conservationists need to look at and work with other actors to address the root drivers of poaching, such as poverty, indebtedness, land insecurity, and market demand for wildlife products,” de Lange continued, adding that Indigenous peoples should be involved as equal partners on conservation projects.

Law enforcement is vital, experts say, but it should be part of a “multi-faceted approach” to reduce the number of snares and prohibit their use and possession. “These should be combined with long-term proactive efforts such as education campaigns, community outreach, engagement of local people and programs that reduce consumption of wildlife meat and products by the general public at the provincial, national, and regional levels,” Rostro-Garcia said.

In light of the study’s findings, researchers say the outlook for the survival of the Indochinese leopard subspecies has significantly worsened, and conservation action should focus on areas in Thailand, Myanmar and Peninsular Malaysia where viable populations remain.

“Alarmingly, there are no current conservation measures specifically focused on this Critically Endangered subspecies,” Rostro-Garcia said. “This unique subspecies is on the brink of extinction and requires that we take immediate action to stem the current trend.”

Banner image: Camera-trap surveys in Cambodia revealed that leopard numbers declined even as law enforcement efforts increased. Now, the subspecies’ population is considered functionally extinct, if not fully extirpated, from the country. Image courtesy of Panthera/WildCRU/WWF Cambodia/FA.

Snares don’t discriminate: A problem for wild cats, both big and small

Editor’s note: This article was amended to note the possibility of a viable population of Indochinese leopards in Myanmar.

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