The leopard is the smallest of the four ‘big’ cats after tiger, lion and jaguar. Their coats can be highly variable but essentially they all have black spots on a pale brown background. Typically the spots are small on their head, increasing in size on their belly and legs. The spots on their back are arranged in rosette patterns.
Leopards, the most widespread member of the cat family, are found across Africa, Arabia, Asia and Indonesia. There are several subspecies including the Amur leopard, the Barbary leopard and the Arabian leopard. There has been a huge decline in the range of the leopard in the Caucasus, which is estimated to have once covered the whole region, except for steppe areas. The severe economic crisis following major political and social changes in 1992 in the former Soviet Union, together with a weakening of formerly effective protection systems resulted in a sharp rise in hunting of wild ungulates – the leopard’s prey species, persecution of leopards and fragmentation of the ranges of all wildlife.
Female leopards usually only have one or two cubs, though they can have up to six in a litter. The female raises her young by herself, and once weaned she will lead them to food but otherwise does not spend much time with them.
Leopards will hunt what prey they can, usually small to medium-sized mammals such as wild goat, wild sheep, wild pig, deer and occasionally gazelles. They will sometimes attack livestock, particularly wherever the natural prey has been depleted. However they will take prey as small as reptiles and birds. They will also take other carnivores including dogs, and small foxes.
The Persian leopards avoid deserts, areas with long periods of snow cover and areas that are near urban development. Their habitat consists of sub-alpine meadows, broadleaf forests and rugged ravines between 600 metres and 3,800 metres above sea level in the Greater Caucasus. In the Lesser Caucasus and Iran they live on rocky slopes, mountain steppes and sparse juniper forests. Suitable habitat in each range country is limited and most often situated in remote border areas meaning populations are small and isolated and so dependent on immigration from populations in the south, mainly in Iran.
The most urgent threat is ever-increasing fragmentation of suitable habitat meaning a patchy network of distant and often too small sub-populations of Persian leopards. No sub-population across the entire range is believed to contain more than 100 mature individuals. The leopards are threatened by poaching, depletion of their prey base due to poaching, human disturbance such as presence of military and training of troops in border areas, habitat loss due to deforestation, fire, agricultural expansion, overgrazing, and infrastructure development.
In Iran the primary threat is habitat disturbance. Other serious threats include illegal hunting and over-grazing of domestic livestock in the leopard habitats. The leopards’ chances for survival outside protected areas appear very slim. Intensive dry conditions in wide areas of leopard habitat in recent years have affected the leopard’s main prey species such as wild goat and wild sheep.
Recent assessments on the Persian leopard mortality rate in Iran revealed that 70% of leopard mortality from 2007-2011 were as a result of illegal hunting or poisoning and 18% were because of road accidents.
In the Caucasus, corridors of suitable habitat are urgently needed to link fragmented populations.
Meanwhile, prey depletion is a major concern in Iranian Caucasus, leading to the leopard preying on livestock and resulting in human-leopard conflict. Both better livestock protection and increasing the availability of wild prey are needed.
Increasing awareness of the plight of the species within its range so that hunting pressures and retaliation killings are reduced is key to the long-term survival of this species.
Arezoo Sanei, Iran
Small worldwide grant
Persian leopard online portal - Asian Leopard Specialist Society have recently established the first site to bring the people who care about Persian leopards in Iran together to share the knowledge and learn from new findings. (Open link in Google browser and click Translate)
Mohammad Farhadinia, Iran
Worldwide continuation grant
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