Leopards in the Wild Today
In contrast to their original impressive range, today leopards are found in much less of the wild than they were even just 100 years ago, and in general they are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN. Leopards have disappeared from 40% of its territories in Africa and 50% in Asia. In six countries leopards have lost their battle altogether, and in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuwait, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, the leopard is extinct.
Threats to leopards vary. Habitat loss through logging is a major problem in the Indo-Malaya area. Once dense and diverse forests are transformed into barren and desolate landscapes in order to feed the human demand for wood. In Africa, habitat loss is a serious problem. Every year in an attempt to feed the world's growing population, more and more leopard habitat is converted into agricultural land. Farmland already covers 38% of the world's land surface, but this still isn't enough to meet the demand. Leopards are more tolerant of habitat conversion than other species of big cat. Given adequate cover and food supply they are able to live relatively close to human populations. However this brings leopards closer to another threat that they face on a daily basis – persecution.
In populated areas near leopard habitat, farmers often blame leopards for loss of their livestock and by leaving out poisoned carcasses for the leopards, farmers can target them with ease. Inadvertent poisoning can also occur when carcasses are left out for other species. In Asia too killing predators to protect livestock is common. Even in the more intact, wilder and more densely covered jungle areas, leopards still come into conflict with humans. As the demand for wild meat rises human hunters target the same prey as the leopards, and, as a result, leopards are left with less to eat.
Hunters also target the leopards themselves. Trophy hunting is still legal in some areas, allowing 1-3 leopards to be hunted per 1000 km. This is considered to be sustainable but poor management means in many cases trophy hunting can have negative impacts on leopards. To a select few, the appeal of a leopard head mounted on their living room wall is greater than seeing a magnificent leopard stalking its prey in the wild. Consequently more leopards are hunted than is sustainable. Sometimes the "wrong" leopards are also shot. In Tanzania, it is only legal to shoot male leopards, yet in a three year period this was ignored by some, and tragically 77 females were also shot. It led to a drastic reduction in the number of cubs born and decreased the overall population.
Illegal hunting or poaching is also common throughout the leopard's range, but particularly in Africa, West Asia and Indo-Malaya. Leopards are commonly caught in gin traps, terrifying metal traps in which a leg is caught by spring operated jaws. In just three years 28 individual leopards were captured and killed by this method within a relatively small area of South Africa. Poachers kill leopards to trade their incredibly valuable skins and teeth. The skins in particular are related to traditional beliefs in the sub-Saharan Africa, where they are worn by royals and tribal chiefs. In one particularly shocking recorded incident, one poacher was caught with more than 150 leopard skins.
Because of the variety of threats, some subspecies of leopard are more endangered than others. Two subspecies, the Sri Lankan leopard and the Persian leopard, are classified as Endangered. Three subspecies, the Amur leopard, the Arabian leopard and the Javan leopard are Critically Endangered (the most severe level granted to wild animals). With only 35 Amur leopards known to still live in the wild, they are only a hair's breath away from extinction. Amur leopards are found in southeast Russia, northeast China and potentially throughout the Korean Peninsula. Like other leopard species, loss of habitat, loss of prey, persecution killings and poaching threaten their numbers.
Conservationists are working full time to try and halt the decline in leopard populations. Leopards are included on Appendix 1 of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) so trade in their body parts (commonly skins, teeth and heads) is severely limited. National legislation varies from country to country, but in protected areas leopards are more common due in part, it is thought, to their popularity with tourists. More specific conservation action is being taken in some areas. In the case of the Amur leopards, enormous efforts are focused on decreasing the number of forest fires in their remaining habitat. (Forest fires are often set deliberately by locals to stimulate the growth of a popular food plant.) Another method is to provide additional food for prey so that it is more likely to survive harsh winters and be a reliable source of food for the leopards. Some prey species, such as wild boar, are vaccinated to prevent them succumbing to disease
Scientists are also hoping that by carefully studying leopards in controlled conditions clues will be uncovered to help take specific conservation action that can ensure the long term protection of this unique and beautiful species. One such example is the Munyawana Leopard Project in South Africa, led by the big cat conservation organisation Panthera. This project was responsible for implementing sustainable trophy hunting laws in 2006, and as quickly as 2008 leopard numbers in the reserve in the KwaZulu-Natal area of South Africa were starting to recover. Other projects throughout Africa are now using these results to implement their own conservation strategies.
Welcome and positive as these initiatives are all signs still point towards declining populations. The nature of the threats to leopards requires a wholesale change in mind-set from the people who live closely with them. Livestock owners must stop seeing leopards as a threat perhaps by compensation, and encouraged to diversify, for example where tourism is generated. On the wider scale, habitat destruction must be halted. This requires government and international intervention and coordination. More work can and must be done to protect leopards in the wild today if these majestic and iconic creatures are to win their battle against extinction.