A remote camera reveals a leopard in South Africa's Timbavati Game Reserve.
Leopards are the most widespread big cats in the world, with historical territory that ranges across much of Eurasia and Africa. They are powerful and adaptable, able to live everywhere from the parched deserts of the Arabian Peninsula to the teeming jungles of Java. Leopards are occasionally seen on the streets of big cities and they hunt a wider range of prey than any other big obligate carnivore.
But that doesn't mean they haven't suffered at the hand of man.
The most comprehensive worldwide study of leopards (Panthera pardus) to date shows that the cats now occupy just 25 to 37 percent of their historic range, a team of scientists report in the journal PeerJ Wednesday. And while leopards are doing relatively well in parts of Africa and India, some of the nine subspecies in other areas have experienced precipitous decline of more than 90 percent.
The overall decline is worse than the average for large land carnivores. Further, only about 17 percent of existing leopard range is legally protected, with lower percentages for the most at-risk subspecies. (Learn more about learning to live with leopards from the magazine.)
"We found that many leopard populations are much more threatened than people thought," says Andrew Jacobson, the study's lead author and a National Geographic explorer with the society's Big Cats Initiative. Jacobson is also affiliated with the Zoological Society of London and University College London.
The big cats have declined in West and North Africa and have been nearly wiped out from much of the Arabian Peninsula and China. Overall, their range has shrunk to 8.5 million square kilometers (3.3 million square miles), from a historic high of 35 million square kilometers (13.5 million square miles). Six of the nine subspecies of leopard are now in significant trouble, the scientists reported.
The study comes as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is expected to change its official Red List status for leopards this year. The big cat is expected to be listed as vulnerable, an upgrade in severity from the previous listing of near threatened. Some subspecies of the leopard may also receive a listing of endangered or critically endangered.
Over the past three years, the team compiled the new analysis by combing through the literature, examining thousands of recent and historical records, and speaking with dozens of experts in many countries. The authors are affiliated with a diverse range of institutions, also including Panthera, IUCN, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and several universities, from Duke to Beijing Forestry University.
“Leopards’ secretive nature, coupled with the occasional, brazen appearance of individual animals within megacities like Mumbai and Johannesburg, perpetuates the misconception that these big cats continue to thrive in the wild—when actually our study underlies the fact that they are increasingly threatened,” said Luke Dollar, a co-author and the program director of the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.
In reviewing the paper, conservation biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke says it "sets a new—and high—standard for doing assessments." Pimm, who is also a National Geographic explorer but who did not work on the study, says the team went "to exceptional efforts to compile a vast amount of scattered information on the distribution of the leopard. All too often, scientists have drawn vague boundaries on maps and assumed they mean something."
Over time, the leopard has suffered from loss of habitat and prey species, as well as from direct persecution. It has long been hunted for its spotted skin, which is still prized in parts of Africa, as well as Southeast Asia. Unsustainable trophy hunting also continues in some areas, Jacobson says.
The leopard has generally declined most severely in areas where it was less prevalent to begin with. In harsh deserts, the big cats were often found at the density of one per one hundred square kilometers. In a rainforest, they may be found at 30 per one hundred square kilometers.
Yet, in many places the leopard occupies a key ecological role as the top carnivore, helping to keep prey species in balance. And the big cat often has cultural and historical significance in many parts of its range. (Watch skiers come face-to-face with a snow leopard.)
Subspecies in Trouble
The three leopard subspecies that showed the most decline are the Amur (P. p. orientalis), Arabian (nimr), and north Chinese (japonensis). The authors noted that the Chinese leopard is particularly under studied, since they could only find two recent academic papers about the animal in English.
Other leopard subspecies at high risk of extinction include the Javan (P. p. melas), Persian (P. p. saxicolor), Indochinese (P. p. delacouri), and Sri Lankan (P. p. kotiya).
"We hope our work will catalyze conservation action in the areas that need it the most," says Jacobson.
The team found some hopeful spots as well. In the Russian Far East and the Caucasus Mountains, leopards experienced marked declines until the government increased the size of protected areas and stepped up anti-poaching efforts. As a result, the populations have stabilized there, says Jacobson.
"Leopards breed pretty well, so elimination of active persecution allows their populations to start growing again," says Jacobson.
The big takeaway is that more research and protection efforts are needed for leopards, says Jacobson. "People should think of them as a threatened animal, like a lion or an elephant," he adds. "They are not as bad off as tigers, yet, but they have lost a significant portion of their range."
Philipp Henschel of Panthera says the study should be taken as a call to action. “The international conservation community must double down in support of initiatives protecting the species," he says. "Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard’s fate.”