China Daily / Agencies – 2005-03-16 08:47:20
(March 14, 2005) — They are the most endangered big cats on earth, and while the few remaining Far East leopards have found refuge on a game reserve under partial protection of the Russian Pacific Fleet, experts are scrambling to boost their numbers before they disappear.
“Hunting with dogs and all hunting for fur animals is forbidden in Nezhinskoye,” the reserve where some of the animals live, said Vladimir Vasiliyev, chief of the Pacific Fleet’s hunter’s union.
“And we feed deer and boars here, so there are more of them here than in the national park” nearby, he said, adding that some of the rare leopards, also known variously in the region as Amur or Manchurian leopards, had even taken to trailing hunters in hopes of an easy meal.
Of the 30 leopards now living on the narrow strip of land 150 kilometers (93 miles) long and 30 kilometers (18 miles) wide on Russia’s border with China, at least 16 picked the Nezhinskoye grounds owned by Russia’s Pacific Fleet as their home.
The small plot of land inhabited by the leopards is riddled with villages and crisscrossed with roads, making survival hard for the reclusive animal despite two reserves and a national park set up in Russia’s Primorye region to safeguard the leopards.
Scientists from around the world meanwhile are working to help save the endangered cats.
In a bid to learn more about them, environmentalists from the Russian Academy of Sciences, the University of California and the international Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) resorted to tactics already used in India to study tigers and in South America for the head count of jaguars: setting up “phototraps” — motion-sensitive cameras — in various pockets of their habitat.
“We have to set up cameras in inaccessible places and only in winter. Starting in April, the forest is swarming with people, and they simply scare the animals away,” Alexei Kostyrin of the WCS explained.
In order to reach one such trap, one would have to wade through deep snow and scale a steep mountain top — daunting for humans but an easy hike for the leopard that had taken the trip shortly after the trap was set.
“There are 50 such traps set up in the taiga. They go off whenever a large animal approaches, not necessarily a leopard, and usually take pictures once every three or four days,” Kostyrin said.
With the leopard, pictures are useful — “each animal has his own color and spot design. Once we analyse these pictures we can count how many of them live on this territory — and this is the only way to study such a rare and reclusive beast,” he added.
Last year there were 13 leopards listed, including the eight photographed so far this year — and ecologists were missing a female and an old male which had reigned over the territory for over a decade.
“Most likely they perished. And it was not necessarily poachers that killed them, they could die fighting a rival or a tiger,” Kostyrin said.
“Today knowing the exact number of leopards still living in the wild is of paramount importance,” said Vladimir Aramilev of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Pacific Geography Institute.
“If there are no more than 20 leopards at large, they should be caught for their population to be restored.”
If the number stayed at 30 to 35 heads, as it has for the past three years, protective measures could help bring it up to 50 — which would put the Far East leopard temporarily beyond the threat of imminent extinction, the experts said.
But they warned that Russia’s plans to construct a major oil pipeline linking Siberian oil fields and the Pacific could endanger the fragile environment and its inhabitants.
Environmentalists argued that the pipeline’s end point in the Perevoznaya bay, only 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Vladivostok, was dangerously close to the Far East’s major national parks and could prove hazardous for the coast and the city’s one million human inhabitants.
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