First Far Eastern Leopard Captured, Released in Russia

NEW YORK, New York, November 15, 2006 (ENS) - An international team led by biologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society has captured one of the world's most endangered big cats - a Far Eastern leopard, one of only 30 left in the wild.

It was caught in a snare set by scientists to capture big cats for genetic analysis on which conservation efforts can be based.

"This capture represents a milestone in our cooperative efforts to save the Far Eastern leopard and Siberian tiger from extinction," said Dr. Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Russia Program, which has coordinated the project. WCS is based at New York's Bronx Zoo.

"With the information gained from these animals, and others to come, we will be in a much better position to determine appropriate conservation actions," Miquelle said.

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Melody Roelke of the Laboratory for Genomic Diversity of the National Institutes of Health, a specialist in large felid genetics and disease, examines the captured Far Eastern leopard. It was later released into the wild. (Photo by John Goodrich courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society)
The 100 pound (45 kilogram) male leopard was captured in Southwest Primorski Krai in the southern Russian Far East less than 20 miles from the Chinese border, and just a mile from where a large male Siberian tiger was caught for analysis three days earlier.

Before the leopard was released, a team of scientists from WCS, the Institute of Biology and Soils of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of the National Cancer Institute conducted a medical evaluation including the collection of sperm to assess the animal's capacity to reproduce.

Genetic analyses, together with other bio-medical evaluations, will be used to determine whether leopards and tigers suffer from the effects of inbreeding by closely related individuals, a common problem in small wildlife populations.

Although more than 400 Siberian tigers occur in the wild, the 20 tigers estimated to remain in Southwest Primorye are isolated from the main population of Siberian tigers to the east and north, raising questions about their genetic composition and the vigor of this subpopulation.

The Far Eastern leopard is more endangered than the tiger, with only 30 individuals remaining in the wild, all in Southwest Primorye.

The population descends from a 19th century northeastern Asian subspecies whose range extended over southeastern Russia, the Korean peninsula, and northeastern China.

This is the northernmost leopard subspecies, and the only one in the world adapted to survive long snowy winters.

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A Far Eastern or Amur leopard (Photo courtesy Sarah Christie and Tanya Arzhanova/Quantum Conservation)
But poaching, depletion of prey, and loss and fragmentation of habitat due to forest fires, roads and human expansion has driven these big cats towards extinction.

Scientists say they are very concerned about the genetic status of the Amur leopards. To date, no information on these animals has been available to assess the risk of disease or inbreeding.

A 2002 study on conservation genetics of the Far Eastern Leopard by scientists with the same three organizations published in the "Journal of Heredity" of the American Genetic Association found that, "the genetic and demographic data indicate a critically diminished wild population under severe threat of extinction."

If inbreeding is considered a serious problem, new genetic material may be introduced into this population, as was done for the Florida panther. There, when poor reproduction and physical abnormalities suggested that inbreeding was the culprit, pumas from Texas were introduced into Florida, resulting in increased reproductive rates and greater vitality of the Florida population.

Such actions may be necessary for the Far Eastern leopard, but decisions will be made only after scientific analysis.

The study is the first of its kind to provide vital indicators of the health status of leopards and tigers in this region. The project is part of a larger program to conserve both Siberian tigers and Far Eastern leopards which is overseen by the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources.

Funding for this program has been provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save-the-Tiger Fund and a Darwin Initiative Grant to the Zoological Society of London.