Amur leopard conservation: interview with Sarah Christie
Friday 16 September 2011
Sarah Christie has worked for ZSL since 1983. Now Head of Regional Programmes in our field conservation office, Sarah began as a zoo-keeper at ZSL London Zoo and progressed to a position in the curatorial office where she took on responsibility for the European zoo breeding programmes for Amur (Siberian) and Sumatran tigers and Amur leopards. Sarah's emphasis on generating maximum conservation benefits from these zoo populations of highly endangered big cats led to the establishment of the 21st Century Tiger and ALTA (Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance) funding streams for field conservation as well as to the establishment of ZSL’s own field projects for both tigers and Amur leopards.
Sunday’s episode of Nature’s Miracle Babies (on BBC One) took us to the Russian Far East to meet the Amur leopard. How threatened is this subspecies in the wild?
The Amur leopard is ten times more endangered than the Amur tiger, and is now found only in the forests of southwest Primorsky Krai in the Russian Far East. Only about 30-35 are left in the wild.
ZSL scientist Linda Kerley, featured on Nature’s Miracle Babies, has been contributing to big cat conservation in Russia for many years. How is ZSL involved with these essential conservation efforts?
ZSL is coordinates the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) which runs a range of conservation programme to protect them. ALTA’s conservation activities for Amur leopards include protection from illegal hunting of leopards and their prey, awareness programmes with local villages, monitoring the population with cameratraps, and fighting fires that threaten the forest. ZSL also maintains the ALTA website to provide the public with information about Amur leopard conservation and help to raise the vital funds.
It is possible that the Amur leopard would be extinct in the wild by now without support from the world’s zoos via the ALTA funding stream.
What is the conservation plan for the future?
While the number of leopards remains stable, the population is dangerously small and human settlements or sea on all sides of their range means that their situation is precarious. As well as continuing to support protection and monitoring for the existing wild leopards, ZSL is part of a group of NGOs who have written a reintroduction plan which aims to have a second population of Amur leopards established in and around a reserve where they used to live, north of Vladivostok and away from the cities. Reintroduction of large carnivores is difficult, time consuming and expensive and it is not surprising that it is very rarely done; if it is possible to help a wild population to expand naturally, or to translocate wild animals, that’s always a better option. But that option is not open for the Amur leopard, making it the only big cat for which reintroduction using zoo stock is endorsed by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group.
ZSL will play a key role in this plan, as it co-ordinates the European/Russian zoo conservation breeding programme in partnership with Moscow Zoo. There are over 200 Amur leopards in European, North American and Japanese zoos and they provide vital support for leopard conservation in the wild, through awareness and inspiration, fundraising, research and 'the genetic lifeboat'. The reintroduction plan is currently being reviewed by the Russian authorities, and it is possible that offspring of Amur leopards in a zoo near you will one day feel the crunch of crisp snow under their paws as they roam wild in the forests of the Russian Far East...