Leopard numbers not leaping

The researchers say the study is a major leap forward for conservation (Reuters)
The researchers say the study is a major leap forward for conservation (Reuters)

The elusive and majestic leopard isn't thriving as much as once thought and their historic range has decreased by as much as 98 percent, a landmark study shows.

An analysis of the leopard population across the world, including the nine subspecies, has for the first time given conservationists a detailed look into how they're faring in the wild.

And it's not good news -- the leopard is in a spot of bother.

Among the findings, published in scientific journal Peer J this week, it was found that leopards historically roamed 35 million sqkm throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but that's shrunk to around 8.5 million sqkm today -- a decrease of 75 percent.

The big cat appears to be under more threat than had previously been thought and runs contrary to popular belief that their numbers are sustainable.

"Leopards' secretive nature, coupled with the occasional, brazen appearance of individual animals within megacities like Mumbai and Johannesburg, perpetuates the misconception that these big cats continue to thrive in the wild when actually our study underlies the fact that they are increasingly threatened," said Luke Dollar, study co-author and program director of the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative.

In Africa, particularly the north and west, the cats face considerable threats but they've also almost disappeared from regions of Asia including the Arabian Peninsula, China and Southeast Asia.

Habitat decline in these regions has fallen considerably over time, dropping nearly 98 percent.

Leopard numbers not leaping


Two subspecies, the Javan leopard and the Sri Lankan leopard, are classed as critically endangered and endangered respectively.

The animals can live alongside humans under certain conditions -- that there's enough cover, access to wild prey, and more importantly tolerance from people.

But those conditions are increasingly hard to find, with much of their natural habitat converted to farmlands and native herbivores replaced by livestock.

Combined with that is the illegal trade in leopard skins and parts as well as trophy hunting, which are bringing numbers down.

Lead author Andrew Jacobson from the Zoological Society of London says it's been difficult to get a detailed picture of how well the leopards are doing because they're so elusive.

Co-author Philipp Henschel, from conservation group Panthera, says it's created a "severe blind spot" in the conservation of the leopard.

"In just the last 12 months, Panthera has discovered the status of the leopard in Southeast Asia is as perilous as the highly endangered tiger."

But in all the despair, there is hope.

Though their numbers have historically declined in the Caucasus Mountains, the far east of Russia and the northeast of China, leopard numbers seem to have stabilised and may even be increasing because of significant conservation efforts.

The joint study looked at more than 1300 sources over three years on the leopards' current and former range.

Dr Henschel says the study should give cause to conservationists to "double down" in their support of programmes to save the animal.

"Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard's fate."