Study Shows Leopards Lost 75% of Their Historic Range
Leopards, out of all the big cats, are the most widespread species. They are powerful and adaptable, able to live everywhere from the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, to the jungles of Java, and to the harsh mountains in Russia. Leopards have also been seen on the streets of big cities and they hunt a wider range of prey than any other big carnivore. In many places, the leopard occupies a key ecological role as the top carnivore as well as a cultural and historical significance among the locals. However, a recent study reveals that these big cats are edging closer to extinction.
This study is the first of its kind to assess the status of the leopard across the globe and all nine subspecies. Analysis was produced by a group of partner organizations, including the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, the Zoological Society of London, and Panthera. The researchers studied from more than 1,300 sources containing information on the cat’s current and historic range.
“We found that many leopard populations are much more threatened than people thought,” says Andrew Jacobson, the study’s lead author and a National Geographic explorer at the Big Cats Initiative. Jacobson is also affiliated with the Zoological Society of London and University College London.
The misconception that leopards are thriving is due to the “leopard’s secretive nature coupled with the occasional, brazen appearance of individual animals within megacities,” said Luke Dollar, a co-author and Big Cats Initiative’s director. But, the study found that the leopard’s range has decreased from 13.5 million square miles (35 million km2) to 3.3 million square miles (9.5 million km2).
Furthermore, the researchers said that research should focus more on the at-risk leopard subspecies. “We found that while leopard research was increasing,” the authors wrote, “research effort was primarily on the subspecies with the most remaining range, whereas subspecies that are most in need of urgent attention were neglected.”
Upon reviewing the data, the researchers discovered that four of the nine subspecies (the Javan, Sri Lankan, Persian, and Indochinese leopards) are on the verge of extinction, whereas the IUCN listed the Javan subspecies out of the four as critically endangered. Meanwhile, the Amur, Arabian, and north Chinese subspecies have experienced the most decline in their numbers, retaining only 2% of their historical range.
Of the nine subspecies, only three were represented in 97 percent of the cat’s current range. The leopard has declined in West and North Africa and have been nearly wiped out from most of Asia, including the Arabian Peninsula and China. Only 17% of the cat’s current range is legally protected. Even in places where leopards still had expansive ranges, they are fragmented, their habitat broken up by farms, villages, or other human development. The authors noted that the Chinese leopard is particularly understudied since they found only two recent academic papers about the subspecies in English.
Over time, the leopard has suffered from the habitat loss and loss of prey species, as well as from hunting and poaching. Their spotted skin is still prized in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. Unsustainable trop hunting also continues in certain areas.
The research team also found some hopeful insights into leopard conservation. In the Russian Far East and the Caucasus Mountains, leopards experienced decline until the government increased the size of protected areas and stepped up anti-poaching efforts. As a result, populations have stabilized.
This study will also become a basis as the IUCN is expected to change its official Red List status for leopards this year. The change will include listing the species as vulnerable, an upgrade in severity from its previous listing as well as more subspecies being listed as endangered or critically endangered.
Philipp Henschel of Panthera says the study should be a call to action. “The international conservation community must double down in support of initiatives protecting the species,” he says. “Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard’s fate.”
An Inside Look into the Bear Bile Industry
Laos has become a relatively new hot spot for bear farming when its neighboring country, Vietnam, outlawed bile farming in 2006. Despite the Laotian government banning the owning, hunting, and capturing of wild bears, the weak enforcement has enabled illegal farms to thrive. The number of bears in Laotian bile-extraction facilities had tripled from 40 in 2008 to 122 in 2012.
To extract the bile, farmers would haul a drugged bear onto an operating table and use a “draining apparatus”. Other bears are locked up in tiny cages, sometimes so tight they can hardly move, for repeated sessions of painful, invasive, extraction of their bile. Some even live with a catheter permanently hooked up to their gallbladders. Even when the extractions are over, the captive bears are poorly treated and are deprived of social interactions.
Jill Robinson, the head of Animals Asia, a group that has been fighting bear farming in Asia for more than 15 years, visited a number of bear bile facilities. She describes the bears as “constantly thirsty and hungry, get little or no veterinary care and essentially are tortured their whole lives…thousands of moon bears lie in constant in constant pain and anguish in cages that are no bigger than coffins.”
Conditions are often so unsanitary and bears so sick that experts have raised public health concern about consuming bile from these places. Robinson notes that “most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated and suffer from multiple diseases and malignant tumors that ultimately kill them.”
The bear bile industry targets mainly sun bears and Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears. Their gallbladders contain a bile that helps them digest fat. People have used this bile in Asian medicine for more than a thousand years. And though, like similar animal products, the bear bile has no proven benefits to fix everything, there is research that proves the bile can help treat some liver conditions.
Despite what bear farms have become, its origins and intentions were to save the wild bear populations from extinction. Prior to bear farms, practitioners would kill a bear in the wild just for its bile. Over the centuries, unsurprisingly, bears began to vanish, just like the many other animals targeted by the Chinese medicine trade. This over-hunting, combined with massive habitat loss, has led to the destruction and decline of the Asian bears.
To relieve pressure on wild bears from poaching, these farms opened. Korea developed the first in 1980, but it was in China and Vietnam that the industry exploded. Today, China has become the main consumer of bear bile, keeping more than 10,000 bears in farms legally.
However, research shows that most of these bears were taken from the wild. No facilities appeared capable of breeding bears. In most cases, it is less expensive and easier to steal bears from the wild to repopulate farms with higher turnover than to breed bears and care for the nursing. Instead of slowing poaching, the industry is contributing to the decline of the wild bear populations by stimulating the market and increasing incentive for poachers to capture the bears. Furthermore, experts believe that more bear bile on the market has pushed practitioners to prescribe the substance more freely for a broader array of ailments.
In an attempt to satisfy the bear bile demand, Kaibao Pharmaceuticals, which supplies half of bear bile consumed in China, is planning on developing a synthetic alternative. It will use 12 million yuan (~$1.8 million USD) of its own cash, 5.3 million yuan (~$800,000 USD) subsidy from China’s government, and 6 million yuan (~$900,000 USD) from the regional government. If successful, Kaibao would own the intellectual rights to the new poultry-based, but bear-like, bile.
Chris Shepherd, a bear bile trade expert and the Traffic’s regional director of Southeast Asia considers Kaibao’s commitment to be “an opportunity for practitioners and consumers to make a shift from using threatened species, to legal and sustainable alternatives, illustrating the [Traditional Chinese Medicine’s] community’s commitment to conservation of wildlife and legal trade.”
However, convincing practitioners may prove a difficult task. Despite the various alternatives available, bear bile remains in high demand. Furthermore, ursodeoxycholic acid, the most important component of bear bile, has already been synthetically reproduced in the US and can be prescribed for some ailments, including specific liver diseases.