The Amur leopard is also known as the Far Eastern leopard, Korean leopard, and Manchurian leopard.
Amur leopards differ from other subspecies by a thick coat. They show the strongest and most consistent divergence in pattern. Leopards from the Amur river basin, the mountains of north-eastern China and the Korean peninsula have pale cream-colored coats, particularly in winter. Rosettes on the flanks are 5 × 5 cm (2.0 × 2.0 in) large and widely spaced, up to 2.5 cm (0.98 in), with thick, unbroken rings and darkened centers.
Their coat is fairly soft with long and dense hair. The length of hair on the back is 20–25 mm (0.79–0.98 in) in summer and 50 mm (2.0 in) in winter. The winter coat varies from fairly light yellow to dense yellowish-red with a golden tinge or rusty-reddish-yellow. The summer pelage is brighter with more vivid coloration pattern. They are rather small in size and fall within the range of variation in linear measurement of the species. Measurement of six males range from 107 to 136 cm (42 to 54 in) with a tail length of 82 to 90 cm (32 to 35 in) and a shoulder height of 64 to 78 cm (25 to 31 in). In weight males range from 32.2–48 kg (71–110 lb), and females from 25–42.5 kg (55–94 lb).
Distribution and habitat
The specimen first described by Hermann Schlegel in 1857 originated in Korea.
Amur leopards used to be found in northeastern China, probably in the south to Peking, and the Korean Peninsula. In the mid 20th century, their distribution in Russia was limited to the far south of the Ussuri region. The northern boundary commenced on the coast of the Sea of Japan at 44°N and ran south at a distance of 15–30 km (9.3–19 mi) from the coast to 43°10’N. There it turned steeply westward, north of the Suchan basin, then north to encompass the source of Ussuri River and two right bank tributaries in the upper reaches of the Ussuri. There the boundary turned westward toward the bank of Khanka Lake. In the 1950s, leopards were observed 50 km (31 mi) north of Vladivostok and in Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve. The association of Amur leopards with mountains is fairly definite. They are confined more to places where wild sika deer live or where deer husbandry is practised. In winter they keep to snowfree rocky slopes facing south.
In the 1970s, the Russian population had fragmented into 3 separate, small populations. After the turn of the century, the only remaining population is that of southwest Primorye, where the population inhabits an area of approximately 3,000 km2 (1,200 sq mi) along the borders with China and North Korea.
The only official North Korean government site, Naenara, reported in 2009 that in Myohyangsan Nature Reserve located in Hyangsan County, there were some leopards. It is likely the southernmost living group of Amur's Leopard.
Ecology and behaviour
Amur leopards are extremely conservative in their choice of territory. An individual's territory is usually located in a river basin and generally extends to the natural topographical borders of the area. The territory of two individuals may sometimes overlap, but only slightly. Depending on sex, age, and family size, the size of an individual's territory can vary from 5,000–30,000 ha (19–120 sq mi). They may use the same hunting trails, routes of constant migration, and even places for extended rest constantly over the course of many years. At places where wild animals are abundant, leopards live permanently or perform only vertical migrations, trailing herds of ungulates and avoiding snow. In the Ussuri region the main prey of leopards are roe and sika deer, Manchurian wapiti, musk deer, moose, and wild pig. More rarely they catch hare, badger, fowl and mice. In Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve roe deer is their main prey year-round, but they also prey on young Eurasian black bears less than two years old.
When density of ungulates is low, leopards have large home ranges that can be up to 100 km2 (39 sq mi).
Sexual maturity sets in at the age of 2–3 years and ability to reproduce continues up to 10–15 years of age. Estrus lasts 12–18 days, and in exceptional cases up to 25 days. Gestation requires 90–105 days, but usually 92–95 days. The weight of a newborn cub is 500–700 g (1.1–1.5 lb). The young open their eyes on the 7th–9th day and begin to crawl on the 12th–15th day. By the second month they emerge from their dens and also begin to eat meat. Lactation continues for five or six months. Juveniles sometimes stay with their mother until she comes into estrus again. Until the 1970s, cubs used to be seen in Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve, Primorsky Krai and in northeastern China most often at the end of March to April and in April and May; litters comprised two to three cubs. In captivity some individuals have lived for 21 years.
Radio tracking has confirmed that young may stay with their mother for two years. In Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve situations are known, in which the young of two different litters stayed with the mother at the same time.
Amur leopards are threatened by poaching, encroaching civilization, new roads, exploitation of forests and climate change.
Tigers can eliminate leopards if densities of large and medium-sized prey species are low. Competition between both predators supposedly decreases in summer, when small prey species are more available. In winter conditions are less favorable for tigers, and the extent of trophic niche overlap with that of Amur leopards probably reaches its peak.
Poaching of leopards forms a main threat for the leopards' survival. In 14 months from February 2002 to April 2003, seven skins or part of skins were confiscated, six in Russia and one in China. Leopards are most often killed by local Russians from small villages in and around the leopard habitat. Most of these villagers hunt entirely illegally; they have no licenses for hunting nor for their guns, and they are not members of one of the local hunting leases. Many live close to protected areas where no hunting is allowed and where it is even illegal to take a gun or dog into the forest.
Human induced fires are a main threat to the survival of the Amur leopard. Setting fire to fields is to a large extent simply a habit. Some fires are started for a particular purpose such as improving fertility for grazing, killing ticks and other insects, making scrap metals visible so that they can be easily collected, culling vegetation along train tracks, and stimulating fern growth since young ferns are sold in shops, served in restaurants and also exported to China as a popular dish. Surveys using satellite images and GIS techniques revealed that on average 19% of south-west Primorye burns annually, and a total of 46% burned at least once during the six years. Due to a long and frequent fire history, much of the land in south-west Primorye has been converted to permanent grasslands. These frequent fires cause degradation of suitable leopard habitat into unsuitable habitat. Repeated fires have created open "savannah" landscapes that leopards seem to avoid, again probably because of low ungulate densities.
A number of plans for economic activities in south-west Primorye were developed that posed a serious threat to the leopard’s survival. A plan to build an oil pipeline from central Siberia through Primorye to the coast of the Sea of Japan has been shelved. A plan for an open pit coal mine in the heart of the leopard range was not carried out following pressure from environmentalists and the Ministry of Natural Resources. The strategic location of south-west Primorye, close to the main population centres of Primorski Krai, the Japanese Sea and the borders of Korea and China, makes it more attractive for economic activities including transport, industries, tourism and development of infrastructure.
An acute problem is potential inbreeding, and that the remaining population could disappear as a result of genetic degeneration, even without direct human influence. The levels of diversity are remarkably low, indicative of a history of inbreeding in the population for several generations. Such levels of genetic reduction have been associated with severe reproductive and congenital abnormalities that impede the health, survival and reproduction of some but not all genetically diminished small populations. Cub survival has been declining from 1.9 cubs per one female in 1973 to 1.7 in 1984 and 1.0 in 1991. Besides a decline in natural replacement, there is a high probability of mortality for all age groups as a result of certain diseases or direct human impact.
The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) is an initiative of Russian and western conservation organisations to conserve the Amur leopard and Amur tiger, and secure a future for both species in the Russian Far East and Northeast China. ALTA operates across Northeast Asia under the guiding principle that only co-operative, co-ordinated conservation actions from all interested parties can save these endangered species from extinction. ALTA works in close co-operation with local, regional, and federal governmental and non-governmental organisations to protect the region's biological wealth through conservation, sustainable development and local community involvement. The Phoenix Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society provide a local framework for implementing ALTA projects, working closely with many Russian and Chinese agencies. In regards to conservation of Amur leopards ALTA aims at retaining a leopard population of 35 adult females (100 total) in south-west Primorye and the Jilin-Heilongjiang border region; and creating a second population of 20 adult females (60 total) in the former range of the Amur leopards. Conservation projects for the Amur leopard include:
- four anti-poaching teams with a total of 15 members in the Amur leopard range
- a special task force of local police and anti-poaching teams led by the Khasan prosecutor
- monitoring of the Amur leopard population through snow track counts and camera trap counts
- monitoring and analysis of the impact of fires on Amur leopard habitat and the effectiveness of fire-fighting
- habitat assessment with G.I.S technique : assessment of the role of habitat quality, land ownership, land use, protection status, settlements, deer farms, roads and human settlements with use of monitoring data and satellite images
- development of land-use plans that take in account future needs of Amur leopards
- support for protected areas in the leopard range
- compensation of livestock kills by leopards and tigers
- a comprehensive education program for school children and students in the leopard range
- support for hunting leases and ungulate recovery program
- support for protected areas in the leopard range
- media campaign to create awareness about the Amur leopard's plight
- support and technical assistance for the new Hunchun reserve in China that borders on the leopard range in Russia
Reintroduction into the wild
Since 1996 the idea of reintroducing leopards in the south of Sikhote Alin has been discussed by ALTA members. During a workshop in 2001 the outlines and principles of a plan for the development of a second population of Amur leopard in the Russian Far East was prepared. For reintroduction to be successful, one fundamental question needs to be answered: Why did leopards disappear from the southern Sikhote-Alin in the middle of the 20th century? It was recommended to assess reasons for localized extinctions, obtain support of local people, increase prey in areas proposed for reintroduction, ensure that conditions exist conducive for reintroduction in the selected area, and ensure survival of the existing population. There are two sources of leopards for reintroduction: leopards born and raised in zoos and leopards raised in a special reintroduction center passed through a rehabilitation program for life in the wild.
If this reintroduction is to succeed, it is clear that the design of the breeding and release centre, and the management of the leopards in it, must focus strongly on overcoming the difficulties imposed by the captive origin of the cats. Three necessary behaviours should be acquired prior to release: hunting and killing of live natural prey; avoidance of humans and avoidance of tigers.
In March 2009 the Minister of Natural Resources of Russia during his meeting with Vladimir Putin reassured that the ministry is planning to introduce new "imported" Amur leopards into the area and creating suitable and safe habitat for them. The government already allocated all required funds for the project.
A captive population of Amur leopards was established in 1961 from nine wild-born founders. A molecular genetic survey revealed that at least two founders of the captive pedigree have genetic information more consistent with Panthera pardus japonensis than any wildborn specimens of P. p. orientalis. This observation lends support to a history of genetic admixture between Amur leopards and North Chinese leopards in the captive pedigree. The zoo population in both the American and European regions includes a considerable contribution of genes from Founder 2, who was not an Amur leopard. European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) strategy has been to manage breeding so as to minimize his contribution as far as possible while still maintaining acceptable overall levels of genetic diversity. All leopards with more than 41% Founder 2 have been excluded from breeding since 1999. This policy has resulted in an overall decrease in the prevalence of Founder 2 genes and an increase in the number of leopards with low percentage of them.
As of December 2011, there are 176 captive Amur leopards in zoos worldwide. Within the EEP 54 male, 40 female and 7 unsexed individuals are kept. In American and Canadian zoos another 31 males and 41 females are kept within the Population Management Program.
In 2009, the World Wide Fund for Nature created an advertisement asking people to adopt one of the few Amur leopards left in an attempt to help conserve them. The campaign is ongoing, with a new advertisement created in 2011 and broadcast on some TV stations, including E4 (channel).
The Animal Planet documentary, The Last Leopard (2008) is about the plight of Amur leopards in Russia. The television series "Wild Russia" showed a quick glimpse into the life of the Amur leopard. A female Amur leopard and her cub were featured on Planet Earth episodes "From Pole to Pole" and "Seasonal Forests". The female's name is "Skrytnaya", which means 'The secretive one'. The male cub died at the age of around 18 months; he was the result of inbreeding - the cub's sire was also Skrytnaya's sire.