The Persian leopard is large, weighing up to 60 kg (130 lb), and light in color.
Biometric data collected from 25 female and male individuals in various provinces of Iran indicates average body length of 259 cm (102 in). A young male from northern Iran weighed 64 kg (140 lb).
Distribution and habitat
There has been a huge decline in the former range of the leopard in the Caucasus, which is estimated to have once covered the whole region, except for steppe areas. The severe economic crisis following major political and social changes in 1992 in the former Soviet Union, together with a weakening of formerly effective protection systems resulted in a sharp rise in hunting of wild ungulates, persecution of leopards and fragmentation of the ranges of all wildlife. As of 2008, of the estimated 871-1,290 mature leopards
- about 200–300 survive in Afghanistan, where their status is poorly known;
- fewer than 10–13 survive in Armenia;
- fewer than 10–13 survive in Azerbaijan;
- fewer than 5 survive in Georgia;
- about 550–850 live in Iran, which is the leopard stronghold in Southwest Asia;
- about 3–4 survive in Nagorno-Karabakh;
- fewer than 10 survive in the Russian North Caucasus;
- fewer than 5 survive in Turkey;
- about 78–90 live in Turkmenistan.
The Persian leopard is a flag-ship species. Its presence is a sign of the health of the entire ecosystem.
In Armenia, people and leopards co-existed since the early Holocene. By the mid-20th century leopards were relatively common in the country's mountains. Today, the leopard stronghold is the rugged and cliffy terrain of Khosrov State Reserve, located south-east of Yerevan on the south-western slopes of the Geghama mountains, where between October 2000 to July 2002 tracks of no more than 10 individuals were found in an area of 780 km2 (300 sq mi). Leopards were known to live on the Meghri Ridge in the extreme south of Armenia, where only one individual was camera-trapped between August 2006 to April 2007, and no signs of other leopards were found during track surveys conducted over an area of 296.9 km2 (114.6 sq mi). The local prey base could support 4–10 individuals, but poaching and disturbance caused by livestock breeding, gathering of edible plants and mushrooms, deforestation and human-induced wild fires are so high that they exceed the tolerance limits of leopards.
Leopards are present in the Talysh Mountains in the farsoutheast, where their habitat is continuous with that on the Iranian side of Talysh Mountains. They also survived in northwest Azerbaijan in the Akhar-Bakhar section of Ilisu State Reserve in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus until recently, but current numbers are extremely low.
Despite occasional sightings, it was not clear whether leopards had been extinct in Azerbaijan by the late 1990s, until a specimen was camera-trapped in March 2007 in the Hirkan National Park.
Since 1954, leopards were thought to be extinct in Georgia — killed by hunters. In April 2001, an adult female was shot on the border to Kabardino-Balkaria, her two cubs captured and taken to the Novosibirsk Zoo in Russia. In the winter of 2003, zoologists found footprints of a leopard in Vashlovani Reserve in southeastern Georgia and later camera-trapped one young male individual several times. Leopard signs have also been found at two localities in Tusheti, the headwaters of the Andi Koisu and Assa rivers, bordering Dagestan.
Over the last 60 years, there have been several sightings of leopards around the Tbilisi area and in the Shida Kartli province to the northwest of the capital. Leopards live primarily in dense forests, although several have been spotted in the lowland plains in the southeastern region of Kakheti in 2004.
Leopards are mainly found in the Alborz and the Zagros mountain ranges. These ranges cover a vast area starting from the borders with Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, extending to the Caspian litoral region and on to Turkmenistan and western parts of Afghanistan in the Alborz range. Along the Zagros range, leopard habitats extend to the south of Iran, close to the Persian Gulf.
Seventy four protected and non-protected areas were identified across the country in recent years as sites where leopards are present. However, 69% of them are located in the Hircanian forests and Alborz mountain range in the northern part of Iran. This area is regarded as one of the most important habitats for leopards in the country. Even though studies revealed that leopards in Iran inhabit a wide range of temperatures ranging from −23 °C (−9 °F) to 49 °C (120 °F), they are most often found in the habitats with temperature of 13 to 18 °C (55 to 64 °F), 0 to 20 days of ice cover per year and rain fall of more than 200 mm/year.
In Bamu National Park located northeast of Shiraz in Fars Province, camera trapping carried out from autumn 2007 to spring 2008 revealed seven individuals in a sampling area of 321.12 km2 (123.99 sq mi).
In the North Caucasus regions of Russia
Signs of leopard presence have been found in the upper Andiyskoe and Avarskoye Koisu rivers in Dagestan. According to local reports leopards may also occur in Ingushetia, Ossetia and Chechnya. Leopards no longer occur in the Western Caucasus. In 2009, a leopard reintroduction centre was created in Sochi National Park, where two male leopards from Turkmenistan are being kept since September 2009, and two females from Iran since May 2010. Their descendants will be released into the wild in the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve.
Ecology and behaviour
Leopards' diet varies depending on the habitat of their territory. Their principal prey is the most abundant ungulate such as Bezoar goat, roe deer, Goitered gazelle, West Caucasian tur, mouflons, urial, and wild boar. They also prey on smaller wildlife such as Crested porcupine and Cape hare, and occasionally attack livestock and herd dogs.
Studies revealed that presence of leopards in Iran is highly correlated with presence of wild goat and wild sheep. Opportunistic predation on smaller prey species is also probable. Attack of a leopard individual on onager was also recorded.
Persian leopards are threatened by poaching, depletion of their prey base due to poaching, human disturbance such as presence of military and training of troops in border areas, habitat loss due to deforestation, fire, agricultural expansion, overgrazing, and infrastructure development.
In Iran, primary threats are habitat disturbances followed by illegal hunting and excess of livestock in the leopard habitats. The leopards' chances for survival outside protected areas appear very slim. Intensive dry condition in wide areas of leopard habitats in recent years is affecting leopard main prey species such as wild goat and wild sheep.