A new study published on Monday in PeerJ, reveals that leopards historically occupied a vast range of approximately 13.5 million square miles throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Today, however, they are restricted to approximately 3.3 million square miles. Scientists spent three years reviewing more than 1,300 sources on the big cat’s historic and current range.
Andrew Jacobson, from the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology and lead author said: “The leopard is a famously elusive animal, which is likely why it has taken so long to recognize its global decline. This study represents the first of its kind to assess the status of the leopard across the globe and all nine subspecies. Our results challenge the previous assumption that in many areas, leopards remain relatively abundant and not seriously threatened.”
The results appear to confirm conservationists’ suspicions. The entire species is not yet as threatened as other big cats; leopards are facing a multitude of growing threats in the wild, with three subspecies almost completely eradicated. The Javan leopard is classified as critically endangered and the Sri Lanka leopards endangered. African leopards are facing considerable threats, particularly in North and West Africa. Leopards have almost completely disappeared from several regions across Asia, including much of the Arabian Peninsula, and vast areas of their former range in China.
The amount of habitat in each of these regions is plummeting; declining by nearly 98 percent. Arabian leopards face additional challenges as they are the only subspecies with less than 10 percent of its remaining range occurring within protected areas. Worldwide, approximately 17 percent of existing leopard range is under some formal protection.
The leopard’s territory is being turned over to farming and natural prey is replaced by livestock. The study provides a comprehensive analysis of the leopard’s global territory that highlights the threat of conflicts with humans.
Leopards are one of the “Big Five Game:” with lions, rhinos, buffalo and elephants and continue to be hunted for trophies. There is a flourishing black market in illegal leopard body parts.
Leopards; however appear to be recovering in some areas. Despite historic declines in the Caucasus Mountains, the Russian Far East and Northeast China, leopard populations in these regions appear be stabilizing and even rebounding due to significant investments in conservation: establishing protected areas and increasing anti-poaching measures.
WCCLAS News Staff
See full study: Jacobson, A et al. (2016). Leopard (Panthera pardus) status, distribution, and the research efforts across its range. (PeerJ) 10.7717/peerj.1974