Saving the Wild, Russian-style

A hundred years ago a subspecies of the cat family, the Amur Leopard, roamed the snowy mountains and wooded areas of modern-day Russia and China near the Pacific Coast. The Amur Leopard’s abundance was largely due to the fact that it was the only species of its kind to master hunting and survival skills in snowy conditions, critical to enduring the area’s tough climate and cold winters.

No more. In 2007, the Amur Leopard’s numbers were estimated at just between 19 and 26 still surviving in the wild. The reasons were numerous: human encroachment on its environment, deforestation, pollution and poaching have all played a role. An Amur Leopard’s pelt can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market from locals and foreigners alike interested in its aesthetic and medicinal value.

That’s why in 2012 the Russian government established the 2,800 square-kilometer Land of the Leopard National Park in the country’s Far East, near the border with China. The park is larger than the nation of Luxembourg and recently a special tunnel was constructed to ease the leopard’s seasonal migration in light of nearby human activity. It’s further complemented by a similar conservation area on the Chinese side of the border. The Russian President personally committed to helping save the endangered species, at one point releasing an Amur Leopard into the wild from captivity on TV. Yet climate change continues to threaten the leopard’s existence.

Today the Amur Leopard’s numbers have recovered to an estimated 70-80 animals living in the wild and a further 210 being held in captivity at various nature reserves across the country. But the fight to save this beautiful animal isn’t over. Numerous charities and NGOs, such as the Phoenix and World Wildlife funds, continue their work to save the Amur Leopard. “Such a strong rebound in Amur leopard numbers is further proof that even the most critically endangered big cats can recover if we protect their habitat and work together on conservation efforts” Barney Long, who leads Asian species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, told CBS News.