The Far Eastern leopard (Pantera pardus orientalis) is the rarest surviving subspecies of leopard. The only surviving Far Eastern leopard population is in the southern Far East of Russia. It numbers between 30 and 50 animals.
Three isolated groupings of Far Eastern leopards exist in the Far East: a Prikhankaisky grouping in the modern-day Khankaisky and Pogranichny Districts, one in the southern part of Sikhote-Alin, and one in the Nadyozhdinsky and Khasansky Districts in the southwest of the Primorye Territory.
The first mentions of the Far Eastern leopard can be found in the travel journals of Nikolai Przhevalsky and Mikhail Yankovsky. Information on the predator in the form of a travel report was not systematised until the 1960s, and it was only in 1972 that all the information on the rare Far Eastern wild cat was summarised in the monograph by Vladimir Geptner and Arkady Sludsky.
The Far Eastern leopard used to live at the Komarov Ussuri State Nature Reserve of the Far Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and was an unprotected species both in the reserve and in the surrounding areas. During the 1930s and 1940s all predators, including the leopard, were routinely destroyed, both at the Ussuri and other nature reserves. In 1956, hunting leopards was officially outlawed, but the economic development of the leopard’s natural habitat, especially deer parks, had a negative impact on the stability of the population. These factors, together with a sharp increase in poaching, led to a significant decline in the population and a sharp decrease in the geographical range inhabited by the leopard.
Detailed studies of the current distribution, numbers, and structures of the populations, the social organisation, reproduction, food and other biological characteristics of the Far Eastern leopard were conducted in 1976 by Dmitry Pikunov and then subsequently in 1986 by Viktor Korkishko. The completion of these studies led to the publishing in 1992 of the monograph The Far Eastern Leopard, which presented the most comprehensive information to date on the Far Eastern leopard.
Between 1993 and 1998 a project was carried out in Russia which focused on studying the size and structure of the habitats of Far Eastern leopards using VHF transmitter collars.
Over the last 10 years the study of the Far Eastern leopard population has focused on determining the numbers of the subspecies using a variety of approaches, chief among them the traditional method of tracing their tracks and photo identification of the animals with the use of camera traps. A study to determine the status of the Far Eastern leopard using molecular genetic techniques has begun, and comprehensive veterinary studies have also been carried out.
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Today there is only one population of the Far Eastern leopard, numbering somewhere between 40 and 52 animals. This rare species of wild cat has been included on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is in danger of extinction. In recent years the leopards’ food supply has shrunk considerably due to forest fires and the development of the infrastructure of the Primorye Territory. As a result of the economic development of the forests and poaching, the leopard’s main food source, the roe deer, is slowly being destroyed. If urgent measures are not taken to preserve these animals, the Far Eastern leopard population will die out. In connection with this, in 1999 the Strategy for the Preservation of the Far Eastern Leopard in Russia was adopted. This strategy proposes improving the network of leopard reserves (specially protected natural areas), optimising wildlife management in the leopard’s habitats, creating a viable population in captivity and reviving the dwindling population in the wild. The strategy also suggests that the numbers of leopards and the state of their habitats should be monitored, research studies conducted and measures to preserve the leopard promoted.
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In 2008, by order of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences a programme for the study, preservation and rehabilitation of the Far Eastern leopard in Russia’s Far East was adopted. It is being implemented as a standalone project within the framework of the permanent expedition of the Russian Academy of Sciences into the study of animals included in the Red Book of the Russian Federation and other especially important animal fauna of Russia. The research programme is being carried out by specialists from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEE RAS). The scientific leader of the expedition is IEE director, Academician Dmitry Pavlov and the head of the expedition is Doctor of Biological Sciences Vyacheslav Rozhnov, IEE deputy director.
The aims of the programme are to work out the scientific basis for the preservation and revival of the Far Eastern leopard within the boundaries of its historical habitat in the Russian Far East. During the implementation of the programme specialists from the Severtsov Institute will study and monitor the state of the existing Far Eastern leopard population and research the taxonomic status of the animals. The expedition is expected to result in a new version of the strategy to preserve the Far Eastern leopard and a list of recommendations to state conservation bodies on how to preserve the endangered species.
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Until October 27, 2008 there were three specially protected natural areas in the regions where the leopards live, of varying levels, policies and jurisdictions: the small Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve run by the RAS, the Barsovy Federal Nature Reserve run by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Borisovskoye Plato Nature Reserve under the jurisdiction of the Primorye Territory. By order of the Russian government the Leopardovy Federal Nature Reserve was established within the Barsovy and Borisovskoye Plato reserves, which together with the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve was transferred over to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
On April 5, 2012 Vladimir Putin signed a government resolution On the Establishment of the Leopard Land National Park. The national park included the most precious habitats of the Far Eastern leopards. The Leopard Land National Park covers an overall area of 261,879 hectares within the Khasansky and Nadyozhdinsky Districts, the Ussuri city district and the Frunzensky district of Vladivostok.
Today, with the use of camera traps, and in recent years also special video cameras, practically all leopards have been identified. A programme to monitor the movements of the leopards using collars fitted with GLONASS tracking devices, manufactured by the Russian company Navigation Information Systems, was launched in the autumn of 2011. The key priorities of the Leopard Land National Park are: to improve the system of biotechnical measures to stabilise and increase the numbers of large cats of prey in the wild, to step up the fight against illegal poaching and to reduce the impact of the manmade environment on wildlife. On March 1, 2012 the construction of a tunnel in the Narvinsky pass got underway. This tunnel will enable the migration routes of wild animals, including those of the leopard and tiger, to be preserved.
A group of specialists is working on a long-term plan for managing and developing the Leopard Land National Park. This paper will contain decisions and recommendations on: the preservation of nature reserves and protected areas, the implementation of scientific studies and environmental monitoring, the expansion of educational tourism and the provision of administrative and economic components.
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In August 2010 Sergei Ivanov visited the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve. He was visiting the Primorye Territory to attend a meeting on the Leopard Land National Park. The Deputy Prime Minister had first spoken about his patronage of this ecozone as far back as 2008. Then a new specially protected natural area, the Leopardovy Federal Nature Reserve, appeared on the map, uniting under one umbrella the Barsovy and Borisovskoye Plato nature reserves into a total area of over 169,000 hectares. This entire area fell under the jurisdiction of the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve, which was also transferred over to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.