Endangered – The Threat to Amur Leopards
By Annette J Beveridge
A colossal 80% of the Amur leopard’s habitat has been lost due to forest fires, logging and agricultural land conversion projects
A subspecies of leopard that has adapted to the colder climates of the mountains and forests, the Amur leopard, (Panthera pardus orientalis) is slightly smaller than other leopards with a thick coat, wide-spacing rosettes and a long tail. The rosettes are spaced further apart with a dark ring around them which helps with identification against other leopards. They can be heard making rasping sounds even if the animal is hidden from sight. Their fur changes seasonally. In the winter, it is lighter with a yellow sheen and in the summer months, a yellow/red tinge develops to the fur.
During the winter, fur grows to 7cm which helps to insulate them against the cold. Males weigh between 32-48 kg and are longer – up to 136cm in length. Females weigh around 25-43kg. The name Amur originates from the Amur river which flows into the sea in eastern Russia and forms part of the border between Russia and China. They are known by many names such as the Far East leopard, Korean leopard, and Russian leopard.
Historically, Amur leopards had an extensive range – approximately139,674 km but this decreased dramatically during the 1970’s where 80% of their habitat was lost. Now, the range is much smaller at 4,134 km. These leopards live solitary lives and they purposely avoid crossing into another’s territory where possible. These are formidable big cats and territorial fights can be costly. Agile, they can easily jump vertically up to 10 feet in the air and reach 20 feet horizontally.
The last pocket of Amur leopards have been found in southwest Primorye within the Russian Far East and this is where leopards are establishing new territories by crossing over the borders into China.
Amur leopards do not have a specific breeding season but give birth to between 5 and 10 cubs following a gestation period lasting approximately 12 weeks. The cubs are blind and vulnerable at birth weighing just half a kilogram. The female keeps her cubs carefully hidden for up to 8 weeks and the male has nothing to do with the offspring at all. The cubs remain with the female for up to 2 years. Amur leopards are vulnerable to extinction as they have the lowest levels of leopard genetic variation.
Amur leopards are nocturnal and rest much of the day sleeping in caves or out of sight waiting for dusk. As with all cats, their eyesight is excellent and they will hunt roe and sika deer. These are strong animals and if they wish to store leftover food, they can carry up to three times their own body weight hoisting large prey into the trees where necessary. Wild boar, musk deer and even moose could make it onto the menu but they are opportunistic hunters and will prey on badgers, hares, and mice.
The tongue has papillae – sharp rasps which are used to take flesh from the bones of prey. Amur leopards can run fast – up to 35 miles per hour, but prefer to watch prey silently, remaining hidden and then will accelerate their speed during the attack once they think they can tackle the prey.
A colossal 80% of the Amur leopard’s habitat has been lost due to forest fires, logging and also agricultural land conversion projects. In addition, the loss of prey has affected the population of leopards, forcing them to hunt in deer parks where they come into conflict with people. Amur leopards have been hunted profusely for their skin and bones for traditional Asian medicines. As the population is so low, there is a risk of disease but environmental factors could also be costly. Where inbreeding occurs, health issues or reduced fertility could occur. This again creates vulnerability within the species.
Conserving the Amur leopard is vitally important as it maintains a balance of prey species which people often forget. Critically endangered since 1996, fewer than 100 Amur leopards exist in the wild.
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