An international team of scientists has used camera traps in China and Russia to come up with a more accurate estimate of Amur leopards in the wild.
The research, published in the journal Conservation Letters on June 19, used photographs from the traps to identify individual leopards that live in the borderlands between the two countries. Scientists recognize this area as likely the last place on Earth where this critically endangered leopard subspecies (Panthera pardus orientalis) lives. That fact makes collaborations of this type, which included biologists from Chinese, Russian and U.S. institutions, critical to learning more about an elusive animal.
“This first rigorous estimate of the global population of the Amur leopard represents an excellent example of the value of international collaboration,” Dale Miquelle, who coordinates the Wildlife Conservation Society’s tiger program and was a co-author of the study, said in a statement.
Previous surveys of the Amur leopard used their tracks in the snow, which made it difficult to pick out individual cats. The camera trap photographs used in this study allowed the team to pick out individuals by the patterns of their spots.
The work revealed that 20 percent of the leopard population turned up on both of sides of the border.
“We knew that leopards moved across the border,” co-lead author and biologist Anya Vitkalova, of Russia’s Land of the Leopard National Park, said in the statement, “but only by combining data were we able to understand how much movement there really is.”
From the data collected over the two-year study, the authors believe that leopards are moving from Russia, where their habitat is just about saturated with the number it can support, to China.
The cats’ movements also highlight a potential pitfall if studies are hemmed in by international borders: Simply adding up the totals found in separate studies in China and Russia would provide an inflated count.
Past studies put the number of leopards at as few as 25, as hunting for their coats drove their numbers down and they have lost much of their former habitat. Despite the “larger than expected” total, with only 84 left, the Amur leopard is still in a precarious position, the authors write. That figure indicates that the population is probably short on genetic diversity, and as a result, a disease outbreak or similar threat could be catastrophic.
The team sees this type of collaboration, providing a baseline from which to work, as necessary to save the Amur leopard from extinction.
“The trust and goodwill generated by this joint effort [lay] the foundation for future transboundary conservation actions,” WCS’s Miquelle said.
Banner image: Twenty percent of the leopards counted in the study moved across the border between China and Russia. Image by Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.
Vitkalova, A. V., Feng, L., Rybin, A. N., Gerber, B. D., Miquelle, D. G., Wang, T., … & Ge, J. (2018). Transboundary cooperation improves endangered species monitoring and conservation actions: A case study of the global population of Amur leopards. Conservation Letters, e12574.