Fewer Than 30 Leopards Left in Russia's Far East

WASHINGTON, DC, September 5, 2000 (ENS) - Only immediate action will save the Far Eastern leopard from extinction, warns a study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Far Eastern leopard populations in the southwestern part of Primorye, the last remaining area of leopard habitat in Russia, range from 24 to 28 leopards - down from 40 to 44 recorded just two years ago.

"We have the opportunity to save the Far Eastern leopard, but only if we take emergency measures now," said vice president of WWF-US Bill Eichbaum last Friday.

The Far Eastern or Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is one of the most critically endangered big cats in the world. Over the past 50 years both the population and the natural habitat of the Far Eastern leopard has steadily declined.

In the past 20 years, Far Eastern leopard habitat has shrunk by more than 50 percent, with development, logging, and forest fires as major threats to habitat. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 also took its toll on the animal and its beleaguered cousin, the Amur tiger.

Tiger protection infrastructure was compromised by social upheaval and lack of funds. The Russian government tried to raise capital by selling off large tracts of Siberian forest to logging companies, fragmenting vital tiger habitat. Impoverished locals infiltrated tiger and leopard habitat to hunt, diminishing an already depleted prey base.

Anti-poaching patrols ceased to operate, and wildlife law enforcement was largely abandoned. Tigers had long been victims of poaching to supply the traditional Asian medicine market, and during this period of strife they were more vulnerable than ever.

Poachers killed an estimated 180 tigers between 1991 and 1994, and the opening of the Sino-Russian border helped the flow of tiger parts into China. All these factors have pushed the Far Eastern leopard and Amur tiger closer to extinction.

In 1999, in the eastern part of the Chinese province of Jilin, a small population of between four and seven leopards existed. This population is believed to have moved on toward the Russian-Chinese border.

Now the animal's future looks even more grim thanks to the Tumen River Area Development Project (TRADP), an ambitious scheme by China, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Mongolia, and Japan to create a free-trade zone in Northeast Asia.

TRADP is touted as the "future Rotterdam" for Northeast Asia and is expected to be a 20 year development project costing over $30 billion. The Far Eastern Leopards left in the wild depend on the habitat located barely 150 kilometers from the Tumen River delta.

WWF's study was carried out in February and March with the Far Eastern Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Science and the Institute for Sustainable Nature Use. The group said that conservationists from Russia and the west have developed strategies to halt the loss of the Far Eastern leopard and the Amur tiger, but funding is needed.

"We are engaging with the Chinese in a joint conservation effort to halt further habitat destruction by preventing and managing forest fires which break out in the Far Eastern leopard's habitat, as well as stemming development - specifically preventing new roads from being built in their range," Eichbaum said.

"In the long term, we must also create a Russia-China transboundary nature reserve and work toward programs which will educate people on the plight of the Far Eastern leopard. But with so few Far Eastern leopards remaining in the wild, we must act quickly."