Wildlife biologists caught an Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) in the Russian Far East, allowing for a rare snapshot and health check of the critically endangered species.
How endangered? Scientists estimate there are as few as 24 in the wild, and no more than 32 living in the Russian Far East, near the border with China. It is the rarest big cat on the planet.
A consortium of groups are working on study and conservation of the big cat: the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Biology and Soils, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Zoological Society of London.
"Catching this female was a big step forward in our efforts to understand the status of this population, and to better define necessary conservation actions needed to conserve this population," said John Goodrich of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The medical examination is important because the population is so small, WCS said. Inbreeding (breeding between close relatives) is likely taking place, with potentially damaging effects on the remaining population. The leopard analyzed showed preliminary signs of having a heart murmur -- possibly indicating a genetic problem due to inbreeding.
Conservation biologists talk about not only the overall size of populations, but their ability to breed successfully and sustain a viable gene pool. Even animals with large populations, if sub-sets of the group are geographically isolated, might be prone to genetic extinction within a relatively few generations.
In the case of the Amur leopard, there is only one population, and it may be too small to be considered genetically viable. The 130 leopards in zoos (including more than 100 in 14North American cities) are being held in captive breeding programs designed to not only bolster the overall population, but increase its genetic diversity.
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