September 1, 2016

Say a Prayer for Leopards

Say a Prayer for Leopards

All Indochinese leopards need, in Malaysia and elsewhere, is to be left alone in their natural habitats. Photo Credit: Zoo Chat

If you thought Malaysia’s tigers have had it hard, you might want to spare a thought for leopards. They’ve had it just as hard, if not worse. Here comes a new study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, that confirms just that.

Indochinese leopards (Panthera pardus delacouri), which are a distinct subspecies that grow to around 1.3m and 65kg, once roamed far and wide across much of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia. They roam far and wide no more.

So say the authors of the study, who set out to determine the current distribution of the once prevalent predators by trying to estimate their population size with data from camera traps and wildlife surveys conducted over the past two decades. “Our results showed the Indochinese leopard likely now occurs only in 6.2% of its historical range, with only 2.4% of its distribution in areas of confirmed leopard presence,” they write.  That is to say, the leopards have lost well over nine-tenths of their former habitats with only small patches of forest remaining for them to hide and hunt.

Extensive deforestation has been a disaster for leopards across Southeast Asia. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Extensive deforestation has been a disaster for leopards across Southeast Asia. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The leopard has been driven extinct in Singapore, is likely extinct in Laos and Vietnam, and is on the verge of being extinct in Cambodia and China. It survives, in much reduced numbers, only in Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. “There are plausibly only two major strongholds remaining, which we consider priority sites: Peninsular Malaysia, and the Northern Tenasserim Forest Complex (in Thailand),” the authors say. “We estimate a total remaining population of 973-2,503 individuals, with only 409-1,051 breeding adults.” In other words, there may be as few as 1,000 Indochinese leopards left alive in the wild throughout their entire range from Malaysia to Thailand to Cambodia and Myanmar.

The culprits for their widespread demise have been the usual suspects: poaching, deforestation and the loss of prey animals. “Most people assume that leopards are still common everywhere, whereas everybody probably knows by now that tigers and lions have become very rare in the wild,” said co-author of the study, Jan Kamler with Panthera, the world’s only organization that is exclusively dedicated to conservation of big cats. Not so, he explains. Leopards, too, have fallen victim to our relentless destruction of nature and their inhabitants. “In particular,” he added, “many areas have experienced epidemic levels of snaring, for wild meat and animal parts, which have devastated leopard populations in the region.”

Sadly, this is also true of Malaysia. On the upside, Peninsular Malaysia remains home not only to the largest concentration of Indochinese leopards but to black leopards as well. Relatively dense canopies of forest have allowed the animals to shy away from people. Black leopards have also benefited from their fur color, which makes them less appealing to poachers. They have thrived as a result in comparison to Indochinese leopards and Malayan tigers.

“No one knows for sure [why that has happened],” Reuben Clements, an associate professor with Universiti Malaysia Terengganu who is an expert on leopards, told The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom. “Some suspect genetic drift. Others suspect the black coat of melanistic leopards may have made them ‘perfect stalkers’ in the dimly-lit rainforests, allowing them to compete with tigers for similar sized prey.”

Black leopards are one of Malaysia's prized predators. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Black leopards are among Malaysia’s prized predators. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Leopards have been losing out not just in Southeast Asia but pretty much everywhere. According to another new study, published in the journal PeerJ, the animals have lost all of three-quarters of their former habitats globally. “We found the leopard had lost 75% of its historical habitat. We were blown away by that, it was much more than we feared,” said Andrew Jacobson, a conservationist at the Zoological Society of London who was the study’s lead author. Among the hardest hit have been those in Asia with up to 95% of their former ranges lost to deforestation. Populations of leopards have been completely or almost completely “wiped out” in several areas, which they formerly called home. The only place worse for leopards has been North Africa, where a staggering 99% of their habitat has been lost.

Can we still save leopards? Yes. But it will require sustained and concerted efforts. Leopards are famously elusive animals that come alive at night and have a natural knack for blending in their habitats. What they need from us isn’t much. They simply need to be left alone in their dense forests with plenty of prey animals around. In other words, we need to save existing forests and stop the poaching of all wildlife once and for all.

Malaysia has taken steps to do both. We’ll need to do far more, however. That is the only way we can save wild tigers, leopards and all other endangered species around the country.

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