When one thinks of rare big cats, the snow leopard or the Siberian tiger probably spring to mind. There is another apex predator though, which is far more rare. A big cat with a tongue that has sharp barbs called denticles for scraping meat off bones; a cat with two different coats for summer and winter; and a cat with spots which are individualized like fingerprints. I am referring to the Amur Leopard.

The Amur Leopard is now one of the most endangered animals in the world, in fact it is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN was established in 1964 and sustains a Red List of Threatened Species, containing the following categories: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild and Extinct.

The Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), otherwise known as the Far East Leopard, is found in the Russian Far East and North East China, located in a region called Amur-Heilong. It is also recognized as the Manchurian leopard and the Korean leopard. The latest census taken in 2017 suggests there are now around 100 leopards in the wild, although there are other references that show between 30 and 70 leopards surviving.

The Amur-Heilong region is home to a plethora of animals and plants such as the Amur tiger (once known more commonly as the Siberian tiger), the Mongolian gazelle, the Amur sturgeon, and the Siberian Spruce Grouse. The Amur-Heilong River Basin gets its name from the Amur-Heilong River; the tenth largest river in the world and the 11th largest river basin.

The Amur is the longest free-flowing river in the Eastern Hemisphere. It originates near the mountain of Burkan Khaldun in northeastern Mongolia, the birthplace of Genghis Khan. It creates a natural border between Russia and China.

The Amur Leopard is a powerful and distinguished feline. They are an apex predator and the top of the food chain in the Amur Basin, although they are probably 1b where the Amur Tiger is 1a.

They typically weigh 70-105 pounds, so considerably smaller than the African leopards found in the savannah, but there are Amur males who have weighed up to 150 pounds. This extremely agile animal can run 37 miles per hour and leap 19 feet in a single bound.

They have a remarkable coat which can grow to 7.5 centimeters in the winter and shed out to 2.5 centimeters in the summer, designed to handle both the temperate forests and the harsh freezing climate of Far East Russia. In the wild, leopards may live for 10-15 years and up to 20 years in captivity.

Regrettably the Amur leopard faces a variety of threats which make it critically endangered. The worst of these is habitat degradation and deforestation. Extensive development of gas pipelines, new railways, and coal mining is drastically reducing the Far Eastern leopard’s environment.

A further effect of human interaction is wild fires. Human caused fires are changing the forest lands into grasslands, which are not ideal for this animal to exist. Another major threat to the leopard’s survival is poaching. Poaching occurs for several reasons.

Leopards are sometimes killed by local villagers when the leopards kill their livestock. Hunters kill leopards to obtain their furs to be sold as well as their bones.

They also hunt them to remove them as competition for the wild boar and deer. Additionally, leopards are hunted simply as trophies.

Their forest territory is easily accessed by those who would do them harm. Poaching for any reason is disgusting and the Russian government has made a concerted effort in conjunction with wildlife groups to protect them, along with the Amur (Siberian) tigers whose numbers have rebounded greatly.

Since 2011, the Russian Geographical Society has been actively involved in projects to restore the Amur leopard population. In 1998, the Russian government approved the “Strategy for the Conservation of the Amur Leopard in Russia.” In November 2013, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation approved a new version of the Strategy developed by WWF experts and the scientists of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The World Wildlife Fund provides funds for anti-poaching brigades and to allocate fire fighting units to protect forest lands. Coinciding with monitoring in Russia during 2018, in the “Land of the Leopard” National Park, there were 91 adult leopards and 22 cubs observed.

There are also a small number of leopards in China and North Korea. The species is critically endangered, a stable existence requires at least 150 specimens. China allows the death penalty for anyone who kills a panda. I believe that other countries need to start following suit in order to discourage poaching activities of some of these beautiful creatures like leopards, tigers, rhinos, and others.