The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is among the most critically endangered of the big cats, with fewer than fifty individuals thought to remain in the wild. Prey species reductions, habitat loss, and conflicts with humans continue to threaten this rare leopard. As is the case for all animals with such small population sizes, Amur leopards are additionally prone to extinction if catastrophic events (e.g., fire) occur, and they are highly susceptible to random demographic (e.g., birth/death rates) variation and inbreeding depression. There are more Amur leopards in captivity (~200) than in the wild, and Minnesota Zoo will proudly feature them in the new exhibit, “Russia’s Grizzly Coast”.
Lasovsky State Nature Reserve in Russia was created in 1935, is large enough to sustain big cat populations (~ 1000 square kilometers), and once contained Amur leopards. It is now a strong candidate for a future leopard reintroduction program. Researchers plan to use camera traps to photograph predator/prey species in the Reserve (including tigers, roe deer, and sika deer) to help determine the viability of Amur leopard reintroduction. Although leopards, if reintroduced, would have to compete for prey with tigers that are also found in the park, it is thought that they should be able to coexist if there is enough prey.
In 2007, the Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Grant Program at Minnesota Zoo provided funding for this project to purchase camera setups, film, and batteries for the biodiversity study. Staff champion for this project was Kelly Lessard.