The leopard (Panthera pardus), one of the world’s most iconic big cats, has lost as much as 75 percent of its historic range. Animal agriculture, as well as illegal trade in leopard skins and parts and legal trophy hunting, are having a devastating effect on leopards.
Recent research challenges the conventional assumption in many areas that leopards remain relatively abundant and not seriously threatened. The leopard is a famously elusive animal, which is likely why it has taken so long to recognize its global decline.
Leopards historically occupied a vast range of approximately 35 million square kilometers (13.5 million square miles) throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Today, however, they are restricted to approximately 8.5 million square kilometers (3.3 million square miles).
Scientists from the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, the Zoological Society of London, Panthera and the International Union for Conservation of Nature spent three years reviewing more than 1,300 sources on the leopard’s historic and current range. The results confirmed conservationists’ suspicions that, while the entire species is not yet as threatened as some other big cats, leopards are facing a multitude of growing threats in the wild, and three subspecies have already been almost completely eradicated.
In addition, while African leopards face considerable threats, particularly in North and West Africa, leopards have also almost completely disappeared from several regions across Asia, including much of the Arabian Peninsula and vast areas of former range in China and Southeast Asia. The amount of habitat in each of these regions is plummeting, having declined by nearly 98 percent.
Leopards’ secretive nature, coupled with the occasional, brazen appearance of individual animals within mega-cities like Mumbai and Johannesburg, perpetuates the misconception that these big cats continue to thrive in the wild — when actually they are increasingly threatened. A severe blind spot has existed in the conservation of the leopard.
The status of the leopard in Southeast Asia is as perilous as the highly endangered tiger. The international conservation community must double down in support of initiatives ––protecting the species. Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard’s fate.
Leopards are capable of surviving in human-dominated landscapes provided they have sufficient cover, access to wild prey and tolerance from local people. In many areas, however, habitat is converted to farmland and native herbivores are replaced with livestock for growing human populations. This habitat loss, prey decline, conflict with livestock owners, illegal trade in leopard skins and parts and legal trophy hunting are all factors contributing to leopard decline.
More research is needed on the less studied subspecies. Of these subspecies, one — the Javan leopard (P. p. melas) — is currently classified as critically endangered by the IUCN, while another — the Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya) — is classified as endangered, highlighting the urgent need to understand what can be done to arrest these worrying declines.
Despite this troubling picture, some areas of the world inspire hope. Even with historic declines in the Caucasus Mountains and the Russian Far East/Northeast China, leopard populations in these areas appear to have stabilized and may even be rebounding with significant conservation investment through the establishment of protected areas and increased anti-poaching measures.
Leopards have a broad diet and are remarkably adaptable. Sometimes the elimination of active persecution by government or local communities is enough to jumpstart leopard recovery. However, with many populations ranging across international boundaries, political cooperation is critical.