The Far Eastern leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), the rarest leopard subspecies, is classified as critically endangered in the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation. The main Far Eastern leopard population lives in a very small habitat in Russia. The animal is also listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and in Appendix 1 to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In 1956, a hunting ban was imposed in the Soviet Union. In the Primorye Territory, the leopard is protected at the Kedrovaya Pad and Leopardovy nature reserves.
The most optimistic estimates place the entire Far Eastern leopard population at no more than 40 animals worldwide, including about 30 in the Primorye Territory and ten more in the People’s Republic of China.
Males and females measure 136 and 112 cm long, with their tails measuring up to 90 and 73 cm, respectively. Typically weighing up to 53 kg, there have been cases of Far Eastern leopards reaching 60 kg.
The habitat of the Far Eastern leopard, the northernmost subspecies, is located just above the 45th parallel. Currently, the animal can only be found in southwestern Primorye Territory in Russia and nearby areas in China.
The Far Eastern leopard inhabits Manchurian-type mixed forests of pine and deciduous broadleaf trees, preferring rugged terrain with steep slopes, protruding rocks, ridgelines and watersheds.
These nocturnal animals usually begin hunting one or two hours before dusk and stalk their prey during the first half of the night. In some cases, they will hunt in daytime, especially on cold and cloudy days and in winter. The Far Eastern leopard also waits till dusk to drink water.
The leopard mostly hunts hoofed animals like roe, young boars, spotted deer and Manchurian deer calves, as well as rabbits, badgers, raccoon dogs, pheasants, hazel hens and various insects. This predator usually kills one roe per week.
Far Eastern leopards reach maturity at around 2.5-3 years of age, with males maturing slightly later than females. The breeding season usually starts in the second half of winter. Females shelter for three months inside rock piles, caves and under overhanging cliffs, giving birth to two or three blind cubs covered with dense, rather long fur. Their coats have tiny dark-brown and black spots but not the distinctive rosettes of mature leopards. Cubs weigh 500-700 g at birth and are about 15 cm long. They gain eyesight seven to nine days after birth. After sleeping for 12-15 days, the cubs start crawling around the den, and at around two months they leave the dwelling. By that time, their mother is regurgitating semi-digested meat for them to eat, before graduating to freshly-killed animals that she brings back to them. The female feeds her cubs in privacy. The young animals follow their mother until she goes into heat again. After their mother wanders off, they stick together until the end of the winter season. Female leopards can give birth once a year, but the mortality rate for cubs appears to be very high.
Far Eastern leopards live up to 20 years in captivity, while their average life expectancy in the wilderness is 10 to 15 years.
As of late, their food sources have declined considerably due to forest fires and the expanding infrastructure of the Primorye Territory. Roe, the leopard’s main source of food, are being killed off by poachers and the timber trade. The Far Eastern leopard population may go extinct unless urgent conservation measures are implemented. To this end, the Strategy for the Conservation of the Far Eastern Leopard in Russia was adopted in 1999.