A new study suggests that leopards have lost an estimated 75% of their historical range to date. In 1750, leopards roamed more than 13.5 million square miles in Africa, Asia and parts of the Middle East. That has shrunk considerably to just 3.3 million square miles today, says the study, as reported in The New York Times.
This research, undertaken by a team of 14 scientists from 15 universities and organizations focused on wild cats and wildlife conservation, is considered the first to evaluate the leopard’s global status across its nine subspecies. Published in the journal PeerJ, the study has been praised for its scope and detail.
Partly based on these findings, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has given its recommendation that the leopard (Panthera pardus) be reclassified as “vulnerable” on its Red List of threatened species. This means better conservation efforts are necessary, says Andrew B. Stein, an author on the study.
The species is classified as “near threatened” with three subspecies listed as “critically endangered” and two others as “endangered.”
Leopards, known to be reclusive but highly adaptive, have been thought to be plentiful in the wild. Like lions, leopards have primarily been threatened by human activities such as the destruction of their habitats, hunting of smaller animals the leopards prey on, illegal poaching for leopard skins, killings by farmers whose animals have been hunted by leopards and to a small degree, trophy hunting in certain countries.
The scientists examined 6,000 records from 2,500 locations and over 1,300 sources to map the leopard’s current and past ranges, beginning with 1750 as the pre-Industrial Revolution age. These records included reports, other researches, photos and newspaper clippings.
The study found that the leopards’ range had decreased greatly by 63-75%, the difference being in areas where data was less certain. Of the nine leopard subspecies, only three were represented in 97% of the big cat’s existing range.
The Arabian leopard, the North Chinese leopard and the Amur leopard of Russia had retained only 2% of their historical range. The data also found that leopards have all but vanished in large parts of Asia and the Middle East. Only 17% of the leopard’s current range was on protected land.
The study noted that even in expansive ranges, these were broken up by farms, villages and other forms of human development. Some subspecies only had a few patches of range left, which was alarming. The more areas of land the leopards have to travel, the more likely the species is to survive.
Stein said that modern techniques have changed the way scientists can now track leopard populations. Scientists still have no concrete idea of how many leopards there are in the wild, but wildlife biologists say the numbers are still greater than lions or tigers.
Leopards have generally received less attention that other big cats, partly because their elusive nature did not allow them to be studied closely. Their adaptability also led wildlife biologists to assume that there are many of them still existing globally.
“I think the biggest threat to the leopard on a global scale is that it’s been just under the radar,” said Philipp Henschel, lion program survey coordinator for Panthera. This can be seen in the lack of studies on the species, much less the subspecies.
“I think that’s something that biologists have to be honest about,” Henschel said. “Biologists have to start picking up and be ready to invest a lot of sweat into counting these cats to show the world how rare they have become.”