Why Amur Leopards Are Endangered and What We Can Do

Despite slight gains in population, the Amur leopard is still on the brink of extinction.

An adult Amur leopard on the prowl

Colin Langford / Getty Images

Amur leopards, a subspecies of leopard found in the Russian Far East and northeastern China, are considered critically endangered mainly due to low population numbers and population fragmentation.

These incredible animals have adapted to the temperate forests of the Far East. Like African leopards, the Amur subspecies can run at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour and are nimble, solitary creatures. They’re distinguishable by their pale coat and dark, widely spaced rosettes with thick, unbroken rings.

Although there have been recent reports of increasing leopards in China and Russia, the latest assessment by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2020 estimated that less than 60 individuals are left in the wild with a decreasing trend. Other studies put global populations into the eighties and even hundreds range, signaling that Amur leopards have seen a slight increase in numbers despite being on the brink of extinction. However, even if the subspecies is recovering, experts warn that the situation remains critical.

Critically endangered Amur leopard
Dee Carpenter Photography / Getty Images

Threats 

Like other leopard subspecies, Amur leopards are threatened by poaching, persecution, habitat fragmentation, excessive harvesting for ceremonial use, prey source declines, and poorly managed trophy hunting.

Even though Amur leopards occur within a large surface area along the eastern slopes of the East Manchurian Mountains dividing China and Russia, their numbers are believed to be very low.

Poaching

The thick, beautiful coats that help Amur leopards survive the harsh climates of their range also attract poachers, as they can sell for prices between $500 and $1,000 in Russia. Even worse, their forested ranges often coincide with agriculture and villages, making them both more accessible to poaching and prone to competition with human hunters among their prey species.

The vicious cycle continues when starving leopards venture into farms in search of food, resulting in conflicts with humans that can lead to retaliatory or preventive killing by farmers attempting to protect their livestock.

All subspecies of leopard, including the Amur leopard, are included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix I, meaning they are considered to be the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. As such, CITES prohibits any international trade of Amur leopards except when the purpose of the import is not commercial (for example, for scientific research).

Prey Scarcity

Amur leopards are threatened by hunting not just directly for their own body parts, but also indirectly through the unregulated hunting of their prey species like deer and other ungulates.

Amur leopards aren’t particularly picky—when larger game like deep, moose, and wild boar aren’t available, they will sometimes resort to hunting smaller mammals like rabbits, fowls, and mice, all of which represent important prey species and whose disrupted numbers can easily unbalance a thriving ecosystem.

Along with humans, Siberian tigers are the only predators of Amur leopards, and they will quickly eliminate leopard populations if prey numbers are low (especially during the winter months).

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

At the height of records, the Amur leopard’s historic range reached 139,674 square miles globally but decreased to 27,788 square kilometers by the 1970s due in part to logging, forest fires, and land conversion for agriculture. Its current range is about 4,134 square miles in northeastern China and the Russian Far East, which constitutes only 2.96% of its historical range.

Forest fires are especially problematic as they often replace mature forests with open grasslands, which leopards tend to avoid.

The small wild population size the Amur leopard has experienced is a threat in itself, as well, since it makes them more vulnerable to inbreeding, which in turn can lead to genetic problems and reduced fertility rates.

An Amur leopard and her cubs
Andrew Porter / Getty Images

What We Can Do

In general, the potential range for Amur leopards is vast, and there is a substantial amount of available habitat in certain parts of Russia and China that would be suitable for the Amur leopard. Limiting the hunting and poaching of prey species and managing unsustainable logging practices could be the key to protecting the Amur leopard long term.

In 2012, Amur leopards had a big win with the establishment of a new protected area in Russia called Land of the Leopard National Park that spanned almost 650,000 acres, including Amur leopard breeding areas and 60% of its remaining habitat.

A 2018 study conducted by scientists in China, Russia, and the United States put the population numbers at 84 remaining Amur leopards across its range along the southernmost border of Russia and Jilin Province of China. Whereas previous estimates were based on tracks left in the snow and therefore more difficult to interpret, the 2018 study collected information from camera traps on both sides of the Chinese-Russian border between 2014 and 2015. Amazingly enough, about one-third of the Amur leopards were photographed on both sides of the border, indicating that the animals were moving between the two countries more often than researchers previously believed.

Another study in 2020 found that the population of Amur leopards, now mainly condensed to the central Loess Plateau of Northern China, had increased from 88 in 2016 to 110 in 2017—an incredible 25% jump over only a year. The uptick was attributed partially to the newly established Land of the Leopard National Park, which had helped protect previously unprotected habitat and create a force for Amur leopard research.

Save the Amur Leopard: How You Can Help

  • Symbolically adopt an Amur leopard with the World Wildlife Fund. Funds go toward establishing anti-poaching units and developing education programs to showcase the animal’s importance across its native range.
  • Although you may not be able to get involved directly with Amur leopard conservation in China or Russia, consider joining a group that helps advocate for their protection. The Wildlife Conservation Society brings together a number of Russian and international organizations that conduct ecological research, population monitoring projects, and take part in wildlife and habitat protection across Amur leopard territory.
  • If you do travel to East Asia, help stop the illegal wildlife trade by choosing sustainable eco-friendly products. For example, always ask the vendor where the product came from and what it is made of before purchasing souvenirs.
  • At home, stick to certified wood products, such as those with a Forest Stewardship Council seal to ensure you’re not supporting illegal or unsustainable logging.