Return of the leopard in the Caucasus

Geographical location:

Europe/Middle-East > Eastern Europe > Russian Federation

A Persian leopard. Russia.
© WWF Russia / Victor Lukarevskiy

Summary

The Near Eastern leopard, once found throughout the Caucasus region, was thought to have disappeared in the 1960s. But recent surveys show the animals still exists in small numbers in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

To protect the endangered species from habitat loss and poachers who kill the leopard for their highly-prized skins, WWF is working in the region to re-establish a stable and viable leopard population in the northwestern part of the Caucasus. This is being done through the creation of nature reserves, habitat restoration and reintroduction programmes.

Background

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is a large, predatory mammal with an extensive range stretching from much of the African continent to a large portion of Southern Asia. Numerous leopard subspecies have been described, although this is subject to some debate (Geptner and Sludskii, 1972; Shoemaker, 1977, 1978; Jackson and Jackson, 1996; Miththapala et al., 1996; Uphyrkina et al., 2001). The leopard of Asia Minor, including the Caucasus region, is generally considered part of the Panthera pardus tulliana subspecies.

The central Asian portion of the leopard's range is highly fragmented, and population structure and size have not been comprehensively studied. There are 7 leopard populations in the region, of which 2, the Iranian-Turkmeni and the Caucasus populations, are better known than the others. Data regarding the other populations are either incomplete or entirely absent.

The present status of the Near-Eastern leopard is included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). The Panthera pardus tulliana is protected by law in all countries in which it occurs. A report, Confusion in wild cats: the Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan (Newell and Jackson, 1996), regarding nomenclature and Near-Eastern leopard sub-species status resulted in the leopard's inclusion at a regional level into the IUCN Category 3(A), with different populations designated differently; the status of the population living in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran is deemed ‘Indeterminate’, while in Asia Minor and the Caucasus the population is considered ‘Endangered’.

The Red Book of the Russian Federation (2001), which uses the scientific name of Panthera pardus ciscaucasica (Satunin, 1914) to describe the Near-Eastern leopard, lists the species in Category 1 (in danger of becoming extinct on Russian territory).

Until recently the leopard was widely distributed in the Caucasus, occupying practically all mountainous areas. However, intensive eradication campaigns at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century resulted in sharp population declines and widespread local extinctions. The reduction of the prey base has also played a significant role in the reduction of leopard numbers. Up until the 1950s, there were less than 10 leopards remaining in the Caucasus. Severe winter conditions (deep snow cover and low ungulate densities) and continuing persecution of all large predators led to almost no reports of leopards in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the present time in Russia, Near-Eastern leopards persist only in the least accessible regions of the Eastern Caucasus. The surviving population clusters are deeply fragmented and unviable, and persist only due to an occasional influx of leopards crossing into the region from Northern Iran.

Under these conditions the Caucasus leopard population is unable to restore itself. This project intends to begin restoration of the Near-Eastern leopard population into the Northern Caucasus by means of reintroduction.

Objectives

Restore a stable population of leopards to their historical range in the Russian portion of the Caucasus.

Specifically:

1. Identify optimal areas for leopard reintroductions.

2. Create the conditions necessary for breeding, conditioning, and reintroduction of leopards.

3. Form a captive group that will become the founders of a wild population.

4. Undertake the necessary actions that will optimize the leopard habitat, partly by increasing the ungulate population.

5. Reintroduce leopards into the wild.

6. Organize a monitoring system to constantly observe the developing population.

7. Conduct outreach activities with local populations regarding the importance of WWF’s work, and develop compensation schemes to decrease tensions in the case of possible damage caused by leopards.

8. Secure international support.

Solution

The project addresses 2 crucial points: restore the leopard habitats and establish a self-sustainable population of this species in the Russian Caucasus.

Key outputs include:

1) Adoption by the general public of the importance of rehabilitation of the Persian leopard and readiness of the public to take action.

2) Adoption by the local officials of a positive view on joint efforts to protect the vulnerable Caucasian nature.

3) An additional output may be the creation of united system of protected areas in the Russian Caucasus and the establishment of a broad coalition of science, business, and local societies for nature conservation.

4) Anti-poaching squads within the key protected areas established.

5) Strategy and action plan for conservation of the Persian leopard developed and approved by the respective national agency.

6) Strategy for the involvement of local communities in leopard conservation developed and put into practice.

The major risks of the project are connected to the political situation in Russia in general and Caucasus in particular, and relevant non-governmental organization (NGO) regulations. There is also a certain danger related to the plans of some local administrations to cut the territory of protected areas instead of, at least, retaining the status quo. Other barriers are weak government enforcement of environmental regulations and absence of environmental policies and practices in the policy of local governments as well as weakness of local NGOs.

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