The first ever global study of the iconic cats found that things are worse than expected.
It wasn’t all that long ago that leopards, one of the planet’s most iconic cats, had plenty of room in which to roam. Now? Not so much.
The first global analysis – a three-year long study by heavy hitters including the National Geographic Society, the Zoological Society of London, Panthera and the International Union for Conservation of Nature – found that not only are several subspecies and regional populations critically endangered but also the overall loss of range is much greater than anticipated.
Because of the leopard's (Panthera pardus) historically broad geographic range and the cat’s impressive ability to adapt, it was thought that the species might not be too terribly threatened. But alas. The study found that while leopards historically occupied around 13.5 million square miles (35 million square kilometers) throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia, today they only have around 3.3 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers). They have lost 75 percent of their range.
Lead author Andrew Jacobson, of ZSL's Institute of Zoology, University College London and the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, says:
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 conventional assumption in many areas that leopards remain relatively abundant and not seriously threatened.
While leopards in North and West Africa are facing pretty tough times, their cousins in much of the Arabian Peninsula and vast areas of former range in China and Southeast Asia have almost completely disappeared as habitat there has plummeted by nearly 98 percent.
Philipp Henschel, a co-author of the study, says, "A severe blind spot has existed 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. The international conservation community must double down in support of initiatives – protecting the species. Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard's fate."
The leopard’s adaptability makes them able to exist in landscapes dominated by people as long as they have cover, access to hunting and the blessing of the locals. But farmland has taken over much of the leopard’s former range and native animals, which are typical leopard prey, have been replaced with livestock. If that’s not bad enough, conflict with livestock owners, illegal trade in leopard skins and parts, and legal trophy hunting are also helping to stack the deck against these majestic mammals.
But it may not be all doom and gloom. The authors note that even with historic drops in the Caucasus Mountains and the Russian Far East/Northeast China, conservation efforts there – including protected areas and anti-poaching measures – have paid off with leopard populations stabilizing and even bouncing back.
"Leopards have a broad diet and are remarkably adaptable," says co-author Joseph Lemeris Jr. "Sometimes the elimination of active persecution by government or local communities is enough to jumpstart leopard recovery.”
Hopefully the new study will help shine a light on how bad the problem is and encourage vigor in new conservation efforts; a world without leopards – and the landscape that hosts them – would be a lot less lovely.