Leopards are perhaps best known for hunting through the African savannah, preying on gazelle and warthog, and dragging their prey up a tree to protect it from being stolen by a lion or a hungry pack of African wild dogs. But there is a subspecies of leopard that stalks the temperate forests of the Russian Far East, trudging through the snow and braving the cold, harsh, and unforgiving Russian winters. This is the Amur leopard, and there are believed to be less than 60 in existence.
The Amur leopard is a native of the Far Eastern forests of Russia and has several distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from other leopard species. These characteristics such as longer fur, and longer legs, help the leopard survive in the harsh cold climate it calls home by keeping it warm and by helping it navigate through the snow. The leopard hunts roe deer and wild boar and will sometimes take snow hares as prey.
Like its African and Indian cousins, the Amur leopard will hide its kills so that they are not taken by other predators. The Amur leopard has to share the far east forests with the Siberian tiger which is the largest of all the tiger sub-species, weighing up to almost 700lbs compared to the Amur leopard which weighs only around 110lbs. The leopard is a solitary cat and is most often nocturnal. Some scientists have reported males staying with females after mating but this may not be the norm. The leopard breeds in the Spring and Summer and females will give birth to 1-4 cubs.
Sadly, like many animals these days the Amur leopard lives in only a fraction of its historical habitat range. Once found throughout Russia, into northern China and even into Korea, this leopard now only calls the far east of Russia home, which also lies on the Chinese border. Throughout the seventies the Russian population was hard hit by poaching and the population took a steep decline. Individuals in China also saw the effects of hunting, the leopards fur is used to make fur coats and for decorative home items, such as rugs. Habitat destruction also drove the Amur leopard out of its historical range and it is estimated that between 1970-1980 over 80% of the leopard’s range was destroyed by indiscriminate logging and converting forests into farmland. There are still large tracts of land where the leopard can live but the problem is that now there is very little prey that can sustain a viable leopard population. Most of the prey has been hunted out of these forests by man leaving these temperate forests for the ghosts of what once inhabited them.
On top of all these issues that the Amur leopard faces is that since the population is so small now the species has to contend with inbreeding. Inbreeding among the species can lead to genetic abnormalities and to a lesser fertility rate.
Many conservation groups are doing all they can to save the Amur leopard from slipping into extinction, lost forever to the world. And while it is important to know that there are people out there who refuse to let magnificent animals be lost, it is also a sobering reminder that these amazing animals are struggling for survival because of us.
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