Considered one of the most numerous big cats still stalking the wilds, it seems that the leopard is not as impervious to human interference as usually thought. A new study looking into the distribution of the cats over its entire historical range has found some shocking results. They report that over the last 250 years, leopards (Panthera pardus) have lost some 75 percent of their natural habitat.
The study, conducted by the Zoological Society of London and the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, is the first known attempt to compile a comprehensive view on the status of the leopard over its entire range, which historically stretches from Africa, through the Middle East and into Asia. This massive range, coupled with its elusive behavior, is what has made producing such a report so difficult. It also no doubt has something to do with the general perception that the big cats are doing well, whereas the study found this to be far from the case.
“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,” explained co-author Luke Dollar, program director of the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, in a statement. The study was published in PeerJ.
They found that leopards are doing particularly poorly in Asia, which appears to be linked to the region’s economic development. In six parts of Asia, a 95 percent reduction in the cats' habitat was seen, though some parts of Africa were no better. North Africa in particular has seen a reduction of 99 percent of the species' range. And with Africa set to come into its own as their economies start to pick up and grow, the researchers warn that things are only looking to get worse.
After sifting through 6,000 records accounting for 2,500 locations from over 1,300 sources dating as far back as 1750, they were able to conclude that there are still around 100,000 of the animals roaming Africa, from the arid scrublands of Namibia to the rainforests of the Ivory Coast, while the numbers across Asia are now thought to be as low as just 10,000. But while the cats can survive in cities, there is often not enough prey to support them, and as more wild areas are converted to farmland, the cats are increasingly being pushed out.
However, their adaptable nature and wide variety of prey base might be their saving grace. “Sometimes the elimination of active persecution by government or local communities is enough to jumpstart leopard recovery,” says co-author Joseph Lemeris Jr. While they may not be endangered yet, the researchers recommend that more attention be paid to the cats to prevent them from becoming so in the future.