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Monday, June 23, 2008

Amur Leopards Continue to Slide Towards Extinction as Conservationists Toy with a Controversial Captive Breeding and Rewilding Initiative

"Amur Leopards face an uncertain future. As well as risks posed by man, the small worldwide population size means that the species is particularly vulnerable to inbreeding which can cause genetic problems including reduced fertility. Plans are in place to begin the long process of reintroducing the species back to the wild."
-- Spokeswoman for Marwell Zoo

An extremely rare Amur Leopard cub was born at Marwell Zoo in Winchester, Hampshire, on November 18th of last year. The offspring of sixteen-year-old Ascha and seven-year-old Akin was exhibited to the public for the first time on February 27th. (See photo above of cub and the one below of her with her mother.)

The birth of Kiska ("pure" in Russian) surprised zoo officials in that it is rare for female leopards beyond the age of fifteen to reproduce. The age discrepancy between her parents is a testimony to just how difficult it is to assemble breeding pairs even in captivity.

While there are approximately one-hundred-fifty of the "world's rarest" cats held at various zoos around the globe, only between twenty-five and thirty-five of them remain in the wild. Of this latter group, only six are known to be females.

That estimate has been arrived at by the use of camera traps and since each leopard has a distinctive pelt conservationists are able to conduct fairly accurate censuses by comparing the photographs. (See World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) press release of April 25, 2008, "Rare Leopards Captured by Camera in East Siberia.")

The situation is unlikely to get any better either in that female leopards under stress tend to give birth to more males than females. Even more troubling, the total number of males and females would need to reach one-hundred or so for the species to return to viability.

Nevertheless, the recent birth at Marwell is an important development in plans to eventually reintroduce captive-bred Amur Leopards to the wild. "Amur Leopards face an uncertain future. As well as risks posed by man, the small worldwide population size means that the species is particularly vulnerable to inbreeding which can cause genetic problems including reduced fertility," a zoo spokeswoman told the Daily Telegraph on February 28th. (See "Amur Leopard Cub Goes Outside for the First Time.") "Plans are in place to begin the long process of reintroducing the species back to the wild."

The reasons for the precipitate decline of these solitary and nocturnal cats mirror those faced by most all large mammals. First and foremost is habitat fragmentation and destruction at the hands of, inter alia, developers and farmers.

Although they used to roam over significant portions of China, Russia, and North Korea, today they are pretty much restricted to the Sikhote-Alin Mountains of southern Russia. It is conceivable that a few of them still exist in the Kaema Plateau and Baekdusan Mountains which straddle the North Korean and Chinese border but because of the notorious uncooperative nature of the authorities in Pyongyang that has never been confirmed.

Hunting, whether it be for the cats' valuable pelts, meat, or various body parts which are a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, is also a huge problem. On either April 15th or April 16th of 2007, hunters in Russia shot and killed an irreplaceable female Amur Leopard in the tailbone and then bludgeoned her to death.

Since the leopards never have been known to attack humans, this killing was totally unjustified. "Leopard murder can only be provoked by cowardice or stupidity, in this case most likely by both," Pavel Fomenko of WWF told Reuters on April 23, 2007. (See "Hunters Kill One of Last Amur Leopards.")

Reductions in the number of deer, hares, badgers, and rodents that the cats feed upon is another reason for their decline. Natural disasters, such as fires, and inbreeding also have taken their toll on the species.

Although Russia belatedly agreed to reroute an oil pipeline away from the leopards' habitat, its lax attitude toward poachers is continuing to undermine the chances that Panthera pardus orientalis can be saved. The Chinese's substitution of leopard parts for tiger parts in traditional medicine is not helping the cats' chances of surviving either.

Specifics of the rewilding effort have not been made public, but it is known that the captive-bred leopards chosen for the experimental program will be taken from European zoos. The animals first will be released into large enclosures that resemble their natural habitat. They will be provided with wild game and mates while conservationists keep their distance.

"The young ones will grow up in isolation from humans and with access to prey all of their lives," Sarah Christie of the Zoological Society of London told National Geographic on January 23rd. (See "Most Captive-Born Predators Die if Released.") "We'd then release those animals, not the adults."

That approach is pretty much identical to the joint effort currently underway in China and South Africa to save the critically endangered, and possibly already extinct in the wild, South China Tiger. (See Cat Defender posts of March 11, 2008 and November 2, 2007 entitled, respectively, "South China Tigers Are Being Bred and Trained at a South African Reserve for an Eventual Return to the Wild" and "For the First Time in Three Decades, Rare South China Tiger Is Confirmed to Be Alive in the Wild.")

Since directly transferring captive-bred mammals from zoos to the wild has not worked out very well it has been necessary to make significant changes in rewilding programs. In fact, research published earlier this year in the journal Biological Conservation by Kristen Jule of the University of Exeter pegs the success rate of such schemes at a dismal thirty-three per cent.

The failure of these efforts does not, however, rest entirely with either the carnivores or the conservationists in that more than fifty per cent of the mortalities documented by Jule were attributable to hunters and motorists. Sadly, that is not going to change significantly no matter how well captive-bred animals are prepared for life in the wild.

Captive-born mammals also quite often lack the prerequisite hunting skills needed in order to feed themselves and therefore subsequently starve to death. They also sometimes do not have the social skills required in order to attract mates and therefore negate the entire rewilding effort by not reproducing.

They are additionally more prone to disease than their wild cousins and this strongly suggests that being confined in zoos does not promote the development of healthy immune systems. A lack of fear of both humans and other animals is another huge disadvantage faced by not only captive-bred mammals that are reintroduced to the wild but even for animals born in the wild who become too familiar with humans.

Attention was focused on the latter problem earlier this month when a truck driver passing through the Los Angles County town of Acton stopped and rescued what he thought to be an ailing kitten. To his chagrin, the kitten turned out to be a bobcat.

The kitten, subsequently named R.J., only spent somewhere between one and fourteen days with his rescuers but that was long enough for him to lose his fear of humans and to preclude the possibility of returning him to the wild. (See photo above.)

Consequently, he now will be forced to spend his entire life at Lions, Tigers, and Bears, a wildcat sanctuary east of Alpine. "He'll walk right up to you. He wouldn't survive," the sanctuary's director Bobbi Brink told the San Diego Union-Tribune on June 6th. (See "Kitten Found on Road Is Not What He Seems.")

Another poignant example of the difficulties involved in rewilding can be found in George and Joy Adamson's experiences with a pet lioness named Elsa. (See Cat Defender post of October 10, 2005 entitled "Animals Start Returning to 'Born Free' Nature Reserve in Kenya as Poachers and Bandits Are Driven Out.")

"Animals in captivity do not usually have the natural behaviors needed for success in the wild," Jule told National Geographic in the article cited supra. "Their lack of hunting skills and lack of fear towards humans are major disadvantages."

Captive-breeding programs also can be easily subverted to nefarious purposes. For example, China is holding at least five-thousand captive-bred tigers on five farms and it is strongly suspected that these animals are being kept so that their various body parts can be harvested and sold for profit. (See BBC, June 13, 2007, "End of the Tiger Tale.")

In Berlin, both the Zoologischer Garten and the Tierpark are run by a real-life monster named Bernhard Blaszkiewitz who not only kills feral cats with his bare hands but sells tigers and jaguars to China where they are sacrificed in the war against impotency. He also has sold a pygmy hippopotamus and a family of bears to the knackers and regularly allows sheep, goats, cows, and pigs to be fed to wolves and other carnivores in plain view of the public. (See Der Spiegel, June 6, 2008, "Berlin Zoo Feeds Goat to Wolves.")

To make a long story short, just about every horror and abuse imaginable occurs at zoos and this petit fait alone makes captive-breeding programs suspect. (See Cat Defender post of January 28, 2008 entitled "Hopped Up on Vodka and Pot, Trio Taunted Tatiana Prior to Attacks That Led to Her Being Killed by Police.")

Even Marwell has grossly mismanaged its Amur Leopard captive-breeding program. In 2003, a female leopard escaped from her enclosure and fell to her death. Soon thereafter a newly-born cub also escaped from its pen and was killed by male leopards in an adjoining enclosure.

Other conservationists are experimenting with the idea of substituting wild-caught animals in place of those born in captivity but such an approach is not feasible with either Amur Leopards or South China Tigers because there are too few of either of them left in the wild.

Overall, the conservation movement is in a rather sorry state. To begin with, conservationists erred grievously in allowing so many species of mammals to slide into such a precarious state. As everyone knows, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Perhaps much more importantly, all rewilding efforts are doomed to failure unless habitats can be established that are free of hunters, motorists, and developers. For instance, motorists are decimating the population of the Iriomote Wildcat. (See Cat Defender post of November 27, 2006 entitled "After Surviving on Its Own for at Least Two-Million Years, Rare Japanese Wildcat Faces Toughest Battle Yet.")

Since conservationists are so unwilling to confront the obvious political and economic realities contributing to the demise of animals everywhere, their motives in turn become suspect. For instance, captive-breeding programs, rewilding efforts, and wholesale electronic snooping on the animals provide conservationists with beaucoup shekels, prestige, and ego titillation but so far they have contributed precious little toward saving endangered species. (See Cat Defender posts of February 29, 2008 and May 4, 2006 entitled, respectively, "The Repeated Hounding Down and Tagging of Walruses Exposes Electronic Surveillance as Not Only Cruel but a Fraud" and "Scientific Community's Use of High-Tech Surveillance Is Aimed at Subjugating, Not Saving, the Animals.")

Of course, it is conceivable that conservationists have written off both the environment and the animals as lost causes. Such a turn of events would be truly tragic in that caged tigers and leopards are poor imitations of their brethren in the wild. (See photo above of an Amur Leopard imprisoned at the Pittsburgh Zoo.)

Purchasing large tracts of land, fencing them in, and hiring guards to keep out hunters and developers would be a better way of doing things. Under such circumstances it would be totally permissible to use electronic surveillance, not to repeatedly hound down and keep tabs on the animals, but to monitor the movements of humans.

Even bribing public officials to save the animals would be a constructive step forward. That is precisely what Howard Hughes did when he wanted to put an end to underground nuclear testing in Nevada.

Some people are under the mistaken notion that money should only be used in order to corrupt the political process and not for the promotion of good. Since most all politicians are au fond little more than hired guns, they could certainly be persuaded to do the right thing if they were properly compensated.

Captive-breeding and rewilding efforts certainly have their place but their importance pales in comparison with the larger struggle to save those animals that remain in the wild. That will never be possible, however, until conservationists and scientists stop viewing animals as objects to be studied, manipulated, and subjugated for their own selfish ends.

Photos: Daily Mail (Kiska by herself and with her mother, Ascha), John Gibbins of the San Diego Union-Tribune (R.J), and Colin Hines of Wikipedia (Amur Leopard at the Pittsburgh Zoo.)