The leopard has lost as much as 75% of its historic territory, according to a paper published in the scientific journal PeerJ. The study highlighted that while African leopards face significant threats, the species has also almost completely disappeared from several regions across Asia.
The study which looked at all nine subspecies of leopards, showed that although historically, leopards occupied a range of approximately 35 million sq. km throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia, they are now restricted to only approximately 8.5 million sq. km.
To conduct the research, scientists compiled more than 6,000 records at 2,500 locations from over 1,300 sources on the leopard’s historic distribution since 1750 and their current distribution. This study was conducted by partners including the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, international conservation charities such as the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Panthera and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group.
While leopards are not considered as threatened as some other big cats such as the tiger, they are facing a number of growing threats in the wild, and three subspecies have already been almost completely eradicated. An important finding of the study was that while leopard research was increasing, the research effort was primarily on the subspecies with the most remaining range and not on the subspecies that are in need of urgent attention.
“The leopard is a famously elusive animal, which is likely why it has taken so long to recognize its global decline. Our results challenge the conventional assumption in many areas that leopards remain relatively abundant and not seriously threatened," said lead author Andrew Jacobson, of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, University College London, and the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, in a press release.
While African leopards face significant threats, especially in North and West Africa, leopards have nearly disappeared in much of the Arabian Peninsula and large areas of leopards’ former range in China and Southeast Asia.
“Leopards’ secretive nature, coupled with the occasional, brazen appearance of individual animals within megacities like Mumbai and Johannesburg, perpetuates the misconception that these big cats continue to thrive in the wild—when actually our study underlies the fact that they are increasingly threatened," said Luke Dollar, co-author and program director of the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.
Leopards are extremely adaptable in human-dominated landscapes if they have sufficient cover, access to wild prey and tolerance from local people. In many areas, however, habitat is converted to farmland and native herbivores are replaced with livestock for growing human populations. The habitat loss, decline in wild prey, conflict with livestock owners, and illegal trade in leopard skins and parts, together are contributing to the decline in leopard populations.
“Leopards have a broad diet and are remarkably adaptable," said Joseph Lemeris Jr., a National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative researcher and paper co-author. “Sometimes, the elimination of active persecution by government or local communities is enough to jump start leopard recovery. However, with many populations ranging across international boundaries, political cooperation is critical," he added in a press release.