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Cablegate: Amur Leopard: World's Rarest Big Cat at the Crossroads

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1. (U) Summary: On November 8, 2007 the Consulate helped
organize and host a film and lecture dedicated to the plight of
the Amur leopard, the world's rarest big cat. The event took
place at Vladivostok's Arsenyev Museum. The film, roughly
translated as "Forsaken Challenge," noted that one of the major
priorities in conserving the animal is the creation of a
national park in its territory to preserve vital habitat.
Following the screening, Dr. Melody Roelke, a big cat expert
from the National Institutes of Health, reported the results of
her recent field research on the leopard. According to Dr.
Roelke, the results were discouraging. The two leopards of the
population of 34 that they trapped and examined exhibited
worrying traits, including heart murmurs and reproductive
problems - indications of inbreeding. She warned that the
Florida panther displayed the same problems before it entirely
vanished from the wild a decade ago.

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Amur Leopard status

2. (U) The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is listed
as Category I in the Red Book of Russia, identifying the species
as being in the rarest, most critically endangered category.
The leopards inhabit an extremely limited range, with the core
population in southwest Primorye. It is also included in the
International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List.
Male leopards can weigh up to 50kg, females as little as 35kg,
and they are of course carnivorous, feeding mainly on deer. The
leopard inhabits mixed forest environments and has long fur to
withstand the freezing weather. Despite the fact that hunting
for leopards has been prohibited since 1956, there are still
frequent cases of poaching and even malicious shootings. The
thirty-five remaining animals range between Vladivostok and the
Sino-Russian border, according to a recent survey conducted by a
team of specialists. Their future viability is extremely
precarious. The plight of the Amur leopard received renewed
focus in mid-April, when a female was found shot and beaten to
death. According to investigators, the killing appeared to be
particularly senseless: the leopardess was shot through the
hindquarters as she was running away from her attacker, and then
bludgeoned with a heavy, blunt object.

Research efforts of conservation consortium

3. (U) The studies of the Amur leopard population began in the
mid-1990's, when a team of Russian and American biologists
started fitting leopards with radio collars to obtain
information on movements, home range size and habitat needs.
Currently, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) monitors
population, using cameras set in the forest each winter. This
method provides environmentalists with information on leopard
distribution and, due to unique spot patterns on the skin of
each leopard, photos provide information on individual
movements, population densities, and rates of population
turnover. Some Russian researchers, however, object to the use
of radio collars, saying it interferes with the leopards'
natural navigational abilities. There are also conservationists
here who object to introducing any outside leopards into the
range to help build up the population and diversify the genetic
mix. Although there is evidence that of sperm damage in the
Amur leopard population. Since the wild population remained so
small for a decade, scientists suspected that inbreeding was
taking place, which is a danger, as it causes serious health
problems and birth defects, and can ultimately destroy the

4. (U) Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation
Society's (WCS) Russian Program described the capture of
leopards for veterinary examination as "a milestone in the
cooperative efforts to save the Far Eastern leopard from
extinction." In 2006, the WCS invited Melody Roelke of the
Laboratory for Genomic Diversity, of the National Institutes of
Health of the U.S., to conduct a medical exam of Amur leopard.
It was for the first time that scientists had an opportunity to
run a series of medical and genetic tests, including the
collection of sperm to assess reproductive capacity.

5. (U) This year, Dr. Roelke, whom the consulate helped to come
to Primorye, and the team of scientists continued their field
study and spent a month deep in the taiga (Russian Far East wild
forests) conducting medical assessments on two leopards which
the group was able to capture and tranquilize. The examination,
including high-tech ultrasounds and EKG monitoring, proved the
scientists' suspicion of inbreeding and reproductive problems,
which may contribute to the extinction of species if action is
not taken.

Important Next Steps

6. (U) Plans for Amur leopard conservation include development
of a captive breeding center to strengthen the generic diversity

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of the population, and establishment of a second, separate
population in the mountains of the southern Sikhote-Alin in
Primorye. The conservation consortium intends to begin a new
research project in southwest Primorye aimed at collecting
detailed data on leopard ecology and their relationship with
tigers, as well as with people. Radio-tracking will further
help identify movement corridors between Russia, China, and
perhaps North Korea, allowing scientists to better link
protected areas and strategically position new protected areas.
Primorye environmental organizations continuer their educational
work with the local population in order to save leopards and
their habitat by preventing forest fires and encouraging
conservation. Environmentalists say the most effective means of
reaching the population is through children, who then exert an
influence on their parents. Last year, WWF opened the "Land of
the Leopard" visitors' center in the town of Barabash, which
hosts groups of schoolchildren who come to learn about Khasan
District's animals and habitat. WWF also sponsors the "Leopard
Days" festival in September, during which district children
celebrate the area's most famous denizens with talent shows,
exhibits, drawing contests, and other activities.

Administrative barriers on the way of Amur leopard

7. (U) Comment: The Amur leopard can be saved from extinction
if the present conservation initiatives are implemented,
enhanced and sustained. But no efforts of Russian
environmentalists and their international colleagues involved in
Amur leopard conservation can have success until the Russian
national government takes important steps, including creation of
a national park in the southwest of Primorye. According to
scientists, the national park should unite Kedrovaya Pad',
Borisovskoye Plateau, and Barsoviy preserves, covering 727
square miles. The national park, strengthened by federal
legislation and a conservation budget would enforce efforts
against poaching, environmental poisoning, hunting, illegal
timber harvesting, forest fires, and roads construction. The
conservation consortium has been advocating for such a refuge
for the last twelve years, but the effort has received no
official response in Moscow. Some hope, however, has emerged
recently, when in summer 2007, the Russian federal government
announced creation of two new national parks, the Zov Tigra
National Park in southeast Primorye and Udege Legenda National
Park in the central part of the region by 2010. It is notable
that First Vice Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov visited the
Kedrovaya Pad' nature preserve during his trip to the Russian
Far East in September 2007. He promised Park Director Irina
Maslova that all necessary administrative decisions will be made
to help preserve the world's only wild habitat area of the Amur
leopard. According to the official, the Amur leopard, the same
as the Amur tiger, are a national endowment and preservation is
an affair of state, along with the help provided by charitable
organizations and international foundations. "And although this
sphere is not within my responsibility. I consider it necessary
to provide help in the settlement of these problems," Ivanov
said. Post appreciates the support from OES and keen interest
in this issue from many quarters of the Department and our
colleagues in other agencies involved in conservation and we
look forward to supporting future initiatives.

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