New York : The world’s rarest big cat was captured and released unharmed into the wilds by researchers last week. There are only about 40 Far Eastern leopards left in the corner of Siberia they inhabit.
The world’s most endangered big cat was captured in Primorsky Krai along the Russian-Chinese border by scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society and Russia’s Institute of Biology and Soils (IBS).
“We are excited by the capture, and are hopeful that ongoing analysis of biomedical information will confirm that this individual is in good health,” said Alexey Kostyria, senior scientist at IBS and manager for the WCS-IBS project.
“This research is critical for conservation of the Far Eastern leopard, as it will help us to determine the risks posed by inbreeding and what we can do to mitigate them,” added Kostyria.
Their numbers are down to less than 40, inhabiting a strip in the far southeastern corner of the Russian Federation. The team is evaluating the health and potential effects of inbreeding for this tiny population, believed to contain no more than 10-15 females.
The leopardess, nicknamed “Alyona” by the researchers, was in good physical condition, weighing a healthy 39 kg, believed to be between 8-10 years old. The animal has since been released unharmed.
Specialists are continuing to analyse blood samples as well as an electrocardiogram, which will reveal genetic information to assess levels of inbreeding.
Three leopards captured previously (two males and one female) in 2006 and 2007 all exhibited significant heart murmurs, which may reflect genetic disorders, according to a WCS press release.
One of the options scientists are considering is trans-locating leopards from other areas to increase genetic diversity — similar to what happened with Florida panthers when animals from Texas were brought in to supplement the remaining population.
Today, Florida panthers have risen from less than 10 individuals to a population of approximately 100.
Over the last 100 years, Far Eastern leopard numbers have been reduced by poaching combined with habitat loss. However, both camera-trapping and snow-tracking surveys indicate that the population has been stable for the last 30 years, but with a high rate of turnover of individuals.