Amur Leopard: One of the World's Most Endangered Cats

With a Wild Population of 40, Amur Leopards are Close to Going Extinct

Amur Leopard
Kathleen Reeder Wildlife Photography / Getty Images

The Far Eastern or Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is one of the world's most endangered cats. It is a solitary, nocturnal leopard with a wild population estimated at under 40 individuals who mostly reside in the Amur River basin of eastern Russia with a few scattered in neighboring China. They are particularly vulnerable to extinction because Amur leopards have the lowest levels of genetic variation of any leopard subspecies. The primary causes for their low population are habitat destruction from commercial logging and farming from 1970 to 1983 and illegal poaching for fur over the last 40 years. Fortunately, conservation efforts by organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) are working to recover the species from extinction.

What Is an Amur Leopard?

Appearance: The Amur leopard is a subspecies of leopard with a thick coat of long, dense hair varying in color from creamy yellow to rusty orange, depending on their habitat. Amur leopards in the snowier Amur River Basin of Russia develop lighter coats in the winter and tend to have more cream-colored coats than their Chinese kin. Their rosettes (spots) are more widely spaced with thicker black borders than other subspecies of leopards. They also have larger legs and wider paws than other subspecies, an adaptation that facilitates movement through deep snow. 

Size: Both males and females range in height between 25 to 31 inches at the shoulder and are typically 42 to 54 inches long. Their tales measure approximately 32 inches in length. Males are typically heavier at 70 to 110 pounds while females typically weigh 55 to 75 pounds. 

Diet: The Amur leopard is a strictly carnivorous predator that primarily hunts roe and sika deer but will also eat wild boar, Manchurian wapiti, musk deer, and moose. It will opportunistically prey on hares, badgers, raccoon dogs, fowl, mice, and even young Eurasian black bears.

Reproduction: Amur leopards reach reproductive maturity between the ages of two and three years. Females' estrus period last from 12 to 18 days with gestation taking approximately 90 to 95 days. Cubs are typically born from the end of March through May and weigh a little over one pound at birth. Like domestic cats, their eyes remain closed for about a week and they begin to crawl 12 to 15 days after birth. Young Amur leopards have been reported to remain with their mother for up to two years.

Lifespan: Amur leopards have been known to live for up to 21 years in captivity, though their lifespan in the wild is typically 10 to 15 years.

Where Do Wild Amur Leopards Live?

Amur leopards can survive in temperate forest and mountain regions, keeping mostly to south-facing rocky slopes in winter (where less snow accumulates). Individuals' territories can range from 19 to 120 square miles, depending upon age, sex, and prey density — the latter of which has greatly diminished in recent years, increasing the decline in Amur leopard population. 

Historically, Amur leopards have been found in eastern China, southeastern Russia, and throughout the Korean Peninsula. The first known documentation was a skin found by German zoologist Hermann Schlegel in 1857 in Korea. Today, the few remaining leopards are scattered throughout approximately 1,200 square miles in the area where the borders of Russia, China, and North Korea meet the Sea of Japan.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, "The last remaining viable wild population, estimated 20-25 individuals, is found in a small area in the Russian Province of Primorsky Krai, between Vladivostok and the Chinese border. In adjacent China, 7 to 12 scattered individuals are estimated to remain. In South Korea, the last record of an Amur leopard dates back to 1969, when a leopard was captured on the slopes of Odo Mountain, in South Kyongsang Province."

As of December 2011, there were 176 captive Amur leopards in zoos worldwide.

How Many Amur Leopards Are Still Alive? 

The IUCN Species Survival Commission has considered Amur leopards Critically Endangered (IUCN 1996) since 1996. As of 2016, approximately 30 to 40 individuals remain in the wild and 170 to 180 live in captivity, but the population trend continues to decrease. 

What Caused Amur Leopards to Become Endangered?

Although human interference plays a key role in Amur leopards' endangered status, their low level of genetic variation due to recent dwindling population size has led to many health complications including reduced fertility. 

Habitat destructionBetween 1970 and 1983, 80 percent of the Amur leopard's habitat was lost due to logging, forest fires, and agricultural land conversion projects (this loss of habitat also affected the leopard's prey species, which have become increasingly scarce as well).

Human Conflict: With less wild prey to hunt, leopards have gravitated to deer farms where they have been killed by farmers.

Poaching: The Amur leopard is illegally hunted for its fur, which is sold on the black market. Habitat loss has made it easier to locate and kill leopards within the past 40 years.

Small Population Size: The Amur leopard's critically low population is at risk from disease or environmental catastrophes that could wipe out all remaining individuals.

Lack of Genetic Variation: Because there are so few individual leopards left in the wild, they are subject to inbreeding. Inbred offspring are prone to health problems, including reduced fertility which further reduces the population's chance of survival.

Are There Conservation Efforts Helping Amur Leopards Now?

The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) works in close cooperation with local, regional, and federal organizations to protect the region's biological wealth through conservation, sustainable development, and local community involvement. They maintain four anti-poaching teams with a total of 15 members in the Amur leopard range, monitor the Amur leopard population through snow track counts and camera trap counts, restore leopard habitats, support ungulate recovery, and run a media campaign to create awareness about the Amur leopard's plight.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has established anti-poaching teams and environmental education programs to increase appreciation for the leopard among local communities within the leopard's range. WWF also implements programs to stop the traffic in Amur leopard parts and to increase the population of prey species in the leopard's habitat such as the 2003 Forest Conservation Programme in the Russian Far East Ecoregion Complex.

In 2007, WWF and other conservationists successfully lobbied the Russian government to reroute a planned oil pipeline that would have endangered the leopard's habitat.

How Can You Help Save Amur Leopards?

Adopt an Amur Leopard through the World Wildlife Fund to support their efforts to save the Amur leopard from extinction.

Buy an Amur leopard t-shirt or donate to support the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance. All proceeds from sales of these shirts go directly to the conservation of Amur leopards and their habitat in the wild.