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Saving the Amur Leopard, the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat

Meet the Amur leopard, one of the most endangered mammals on the planet.

Found mainly in the Russian Far East but also in North East China, the good news is that, although driven to the brink of extinction, the Amur leopard has recently seen a slight rise in numbers as a result of the hard work of conservationists worldwide. However, the situation remains critical. 

WVI has been working on the veterinary aspects of efforts to save the Amur leopard for well over a decade. In 2015 Russia approved a plan to reintroduce captive bred Amur leopards to the wild. This exciting development is the culmination of many years of hard work by Russian and international conservationists. WVI will continue to play a critical role in the programme.

Only 70 Amur leopards are left in the wild. Help us save this magnificent animal.

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Captive bred Amur leopards are going to be reintroduced to the wild in Russia. The first leopards could be released as early as 2019. This will be a historic moment for wildlife conservation.

The story so far

The Amur leopard is Critically Endangered. For several decades there were thought to be only 35-40 left in the wild, living in the Russian Far East. More recent figures suggest that there are in fact around 70 leopards, including a few across the border in the Jilin Province of North East China. 

The difference in numbers is partly due to better survey techniques – more extensive use of camera traps for example – but it undoubtedly also reflects recent conservation efforts put in place in an attempt to ensure the survival of this very distinctive subspecies of leopard.

Adapted for life in a harsh winter climate, the Amur leopard’s winter coat is long, thick and paler than other leopards, features which keep it warm and camouflaged against a snowy backdrop. Largely solitary, one leopard can occupy territory of as much as 150 square kilometres.

The Amur leopard has struggled to survive due largely to the pressures of human activities in the area. These include habitat loss through development, logging and forest fires, which can be deliberately started in order to clear land. At the same time, the leopard has been the victim of poaching, both directly for its skin and other body parts, but also indirectly through poaching of prey species – including deer and wild boar. At the same time, a more insidious problem for the Amur leopard is perhaps that of inbreeding within the tiny remaining population. This has the potential to reduce the leopards’ resistance to disease and lead to the emergence of genetic abnormalities. 

Coordinated efforts to save the Amur leopard from extinction really began in 2001. It was then that a group of Russian and international experts came together to develop a conservation strategy to save this spectacular animal. They agreed that while it was essential to protect the remaining wild leopards, another possibility for strengthening their chance of survival would be to release captive-bred leopards into the wild. This kind of reintroduction is complex and has since taken years of planning.

Following the initial discussion, fifteen Russian and international conservation organisations came together in 2002 to form ALTA – the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance in order to highlight the plight of both the Amur leopard and Amur tiger and try to save them. Wildlife Vets International and has played a vital role in the group’s conservation efforts for many years. 

In 2006, another ALTA member, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), launched its Amur Leopard Project, in cooperation with Russian conservation organisations, Wildlife Conservation Society - Russia (WCS-Russia) and the Institute of Biology and Soil (part of the Russian Academy of Sciences). WVI founder and big cat expert, Dr. John Lewis was invited to be the veterinary consultant for the project. 

Dr. Lewis is also the veterinary advisor to the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) for the Amur leopard, which oversees the captive breeding and health management of Amur leopards in European zoos. The EEP will be the source of leopards selected for the reintroduction plan in coming years. 

Much has been achieved over the last decade and a half. Awareness of the Amur leopard and its plight has been raised. 

Fire-fighting teams and anti-poaching brigades have been established in the Amur leopard’s habitat. Education and outreach programmes are encouraging local people to value their forests and the amazing wildlife found in them. Compensation schemes are in place to help farmers who lose livestock to leopards. Better land management and population monitoring methods are now in place. And a leopard was one of the mascots chosen by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, for the winter Olympic games in Sochi in 2014. 

However, the Amur leopard’s future is far from certain and Wildlife Vets International continues to work hard to provide the veterinary support necessary, both for the existing wild leopards to survive and also for the reintroduction plan. The hope is that the first captive leopards selected to take part in the plan will arrive in the Russian Far East in 2017. 

Good disease control is vital to the project’s success. Our Veterinary Director, Dr. John Lewis, has taken part in essential wildlife health monitoring work in the Russian Far East over many years, in cooperation with WCS-Russia and ZSL. This has allowed us to build up a picture of the disease risks to leopards and how best to mitigate them, as well as providing an opportunity to train local vets and conservationists at the same time. 

The challenge so far

There is no doubt that the Amur leopard’s situation is critical - despite the recent good news that numbers in the wild are slightly higher than previously thought, they are still perilously low. 

Its habitat is suffering from the impact of logging, forest fires and encroaching development. Poaching affects not just the leopards themselves, but more often the species on which they depend for food, like deer and boar. With so few animals left, disease, which can be passed on to the leopards from infected prey, is a very real danger. 

Given the tiny population, inbreeding is also a problem, and can mean that the remaining leopards are less effective at fighting infections and disease. Any serious outbreak of disease could have catastrophic results. There is already evidence that Amur leopards are being affected by Canine Distemper Virus, which is an increasing problem for carnivores worldwide. 

In 2001, a group of Russian and international experts developed a conservation strategy to help save the Amur leopard from extinction in the wild. It was agreed that one option would be to reintroduce animals bred in captivity. This doesn’t in any way lesson the need to protect the existing wild leopards, but it does provide an opportunity to establish a second, more genetically diverse, population. This could save the species in the wild if the many threats faced by the current wild population result in its extinction. 

Since that initial meeting, much time and effort has gone into developing this idea. While international and Russian conservation organisations continue to support the remaining leopards, plans to reintroduce Amur leopards into a second location, the Lazovsky National Park in Primorsky province, are now well under way. Details of the plan can be found here.

This is a complex project which requires a great deal of preparation and research, as well as cooperation among numerous stakeholders. There are many aspects to consider, including whether the released leopards have a suitable habitat and enough prey, as well as whether they are sufficiently well protected from poaching and forest fires.

WVI actively works on the essential veterinary aspects of the plan. For both the existing population of Amur leopards and those that might be reintroduced in the future, a proper understanding and assessment of the risks of disease and inbreeding is crucial. 

Big cat specialist, WVI founder and Veterinary Director, Dr. John Lewis, has developed the Amur Leopard Health Database to compile all available health data on captive and wild Amur leopards. This will be used to help select captive leopards for the reintroduction programme. Working with other colleagues in WVI (notably Dr Alex Tomlinson) and other organisations, he has also produced a comprehensive Disease Risk Assessment which is essential if the risk of disease to the new leopard population is to be minimised. It’s also vital that the existing wild population is protected from any new and potentially fatal diseases.

Hopes are high that work will start in the field in 2016 with the building of holding facilities for the captive leopards and other infrastructure. The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) which brings together 15 different international and Russian conservation organisations, including WVI, believes that a new population of 30 leopards might be established over a period of 15 to 20 years. Over the same time period, ALTA predicts that current conservation efforts should also result in a rise in the original wild leopard population, increasing it from around 70 to 90 animals. 

What WVI is doing to help

Credit: J. Goodrich

WVI has been involved for many years in a range of activities related to saving the Amur leopard. We work to ensure that the current tiny population of Amur leopards is not at risk from disease and that veterinary issues posed by the reintroduction project are understood and professionally managed. 

We have provided both theoretical and practical training in wildlife medicine for local Russian wildlife vets and veterinary students, based in the Russian Far East, in wildlife medicine. We have donated essential anaesthetic and other equipment to help with the handling of captured animals in order to investigate disease. We’ve also supplied a range of veterinary medicines over the years.

Between 2006 and 2012, Dr. Lewis spent two months each year working with WCS-Russia and the Russian Academy of Sciences in the field, taking part in the annual trapping, sampling and radio-collaring of leopards, tigers and bears. 

This work allowed assessment of the health of these species and identification of disease risks they faced. He was involved in the capture of Amur leopards on seven occasions. The leopards were fitted with radio collars, and blood, hair and parasite samples were collected in order to provide as much health data as possible. This was an important chance for local vets and conservationists to get on-the-job training. Click on the links at the bottom of the page to read the individual reports.

As a result of this experience, his role as veterinary advisor to the European captive breeding programme (EEP) for Amur leopards, and as veterinary consultant to ZSL’s Amur Leopard Project, Dr. Lewis is uniquely placed to advise on and assist with the Amur leopard reintroduction programme. 

Drawing on the information he has gathered from working with both captive and wild Amur leopards over many years, he has created and maintains the Amur Leopard Health Database which is a compilation of all available health data on captive and wild Amur leopards. This database is used to identify significant disease issues in zoo leopards, and thereby avoid the inclusion of all but the healthiest in the reintroduction programme.

This health database has also provided much baseline data necessary for the Disease Risk Assessment (DRA) which Dr. Lewis and WVI’s epidemiologist Dr Alex Tomlinson completed in 2015. This large volume of work is an essential component of the reintroduction plan for Amur leopards. It identifies conditions that may pose significant health risks to wild Amur leopards, both those currently living in the Russian Far East and those that will be released as part of the reintroduction programme. It also identifies risks that the reintroduction programme might pose to other wildlife, domestic animals, and even humans in the area. Beyond the identification of risks, the DRA proposes ways in which such risks may be mitigated.

What progress is being made

Credit: J. Goodrich

Apart from training Russian vets in wildlife medicine, and helping organisations on the ground to collect vital health data, WVI founder, Veterinary Director and big cat specialist, Dr. John Lewis has worked over many years to complete two projects which are of critical importance to the survival of the Amur leopard:

Amur Leopard Health Database

Dr. Lewis has created and now maintains a comprehensive health database for all captive Amur leopards in Europe. This is a compilation of all available health data on captive and wild Amur leopards. A vital resource for the reintroduction programme, the database allows selection of the healthiest and most suitable leopards for the process.

The plan is for leopards with proven breeding records to be sent out to the Russian Far East, ideally two pairs at a time. Once each pair has raised a litter of cubs and the cubs have become independent, the parents will return to their zoos and others will take their place. This would help make sure that the new wild population is as genetically diverse as possible and reduce the risks of inbreeding. Immediately before release, it is planned that Dr Lewis will examine each leopard thoroughly under a general anaesthetic to check once again that only healthy leopards are used.

Amur Leopard Disease Risk Assessment

The Amur Leopard Health Database is now part of the much wider Disease Risk Assessment (DRA) for the planned reintroduction of the leopard, which Dr. Lewis completed with WVI’s epidemiologist Dr Alex Tomlinson in 2015. This looks at all the possible threats from disease which could be relevant to the leopards over the coming years, both for the existing wild leopards and for those which will be part of the reintroduction programme.

It also identifies risks that the reintroduction programme might pose to other wildlife, domestic animals and even humans in the area. Beyond the identification of risks, the DRA proposes ways in which such risks may be mitigated. This huge task involved compiling information gathered over many years and from many sources. It is the first Disease Risk Assessment of its kind for a big cat, and although specific to the Amur leopard in the Russian Far East it has the potential to be a model for any future big cat reintroduction.

As the DRA will be most frequently referred to by local professionals working on the ground in the Russian Far East, 300 copies have been printed in Russian as of June 2019, and are available as a publication of the Lasovsky Zapavednik – equivalent to a National Park – which will be the main site for the reintroduction.

Supporting Russian Vets

In addition to these specific projects, and as a result of the work involved, WVI has become the “go-to” organisation for Russian wildlife vets and field biologists to contact about health issues with Amur leopards. We are available to help with any aspect of managing captive or wild Amur leopards. Dr. Lewis currently makes two visits are year to the world-class Alexeevka Tiger and Leopard Rehabilitation Centre in the Russian Far East, where he is able to give practical on-the-job training to the staff, and advise on disease sampling techniques and results. In between visits, he is always on hand to help via email or Skype. Rehabilitation of injured, sick or orphaned animals is usually a matter of more general animal welfare and less important to conservation initiatives. However, when the animals are as rare as the Amur leopard, or Amur tiger, every individual counts and rehabilitation can be an important tool in helping ensure the survival of the species.