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Cablegate: Highway Threatens Endangered Leopard Habitat

R 061109Z AUG 08


E.O. 12958: N/A


1. Last weekend, CG paid a visit to the World Wildlife Fund's
"Leopard House," a visitors' center dedicated to educating
residents and tourists about the plight of the Amur leopard, the
world's rarest big cat and one of the most endangered animals
overall (reftels). The center, located in the hamlet of
Barabash, in the extreme southwestern corner of Russia's
Primorye region, is headed by the environmentalist Tatyana
Belikova. She said that although only some thirty leopards
remain in the wild, she remains optimistic about their survival.

A Highway Runs Through It

2. The single biggest challenge they now face is the
construction of a new six-lane highway right through the middle
of the leopards' last remaining habitat. Belikova, WWF, and
other environmental organizations have been lobbying for the
creation of a series of tunnels and bridges that will allow
leopards and other wildlife to cross the highway without risking
being run over. If the leopards are not able to safely cross
the highway, she said, they risk being confined to a territory
too small to support even their current tiny population. Any
decrease in the number of leopards will almost certainly result
in a fatal reduction of their genetic diversity, which is
already showing serious signs of strain brought about by

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3. Although the company building the highway has promised to
construct at least one tunnel for wildlife, Belikova, citing the
Russian proverb, "Promises don't mean there will be a wedding,"
remains skeptical that the government has the political will to
make allowances and financial sacrifices on the leopards'
behalf. Even if the one tunnel is built, she said, it remains
seriously inadequate to effectively link the two halves the
leopards' territory. She said that in "civilized countries"
they are making tunnels for frogs. "If they do that for frogs,
why not for the last few leopards?" she asked. "The
Administration should show the world that this is a civilized
place too."

4. Leopards, which weigh some 80 kilograms, also face a threat
from the region's much larger feline predator, the Amur tiger,
which can weigh up to 300 kilograms. Recent news accounts have
detailed several attacks made by tigers on leopards. Belikova
said, however, that the leopards can deal with this natural
threat if they have a healthy habitat. Indeed, WWF officials
told us that increasing tiger attacks on leopards are due in
part to human pressures on tiger habitat further north, which is
pushing the animals southward into the leopards' range.
Belikova notes that leopards do not attack humans unless they
feel cornered.

Educating the Next Generation

5. Belikova says that although she is "hoping for a miracle, we
may have to help God and make the miracle ourselves." In
addition to worrying about near-term problems such as the
highway, Belikova spends much of her time working on the
long-term environmental health of the region by concentrating on
outreach and educational programs for children. The Leopard
House staff say that educating children is an effective way to
reach not just the children, but their friends and families. A
WWF staff member told us that parents may find it difficult to
ignore a child who asks why the leopards are perishing. One
student was proud to have shown one of WWF's educational videos
on the leopards to 120 other people. The WWF has taken efforts
to translate many of their films to make them accessible to
non-Russians; others have no text and require no translation.
In addition to the videos, Belikova introduces educational
themes through art projects and nature hikes. WWF also helps
put on Tiger and Leopard Days in some RFE cities to raise
awareness and create a constituency for environmental issues.

6. The scarcity of the Amur leopard is indicated by the fact
that Belikova, an environmentalist and lifelong resident of the
Barabash area, has herself never seen one in the wild.
Nevertheless, she can recall the details of many sightings by
other residents. Most of the leopard footage in the WWF films
is in fact captured by hidden cameras in areas where the animals
are known to frequent. (The filmmakers told us they are careful
not to reveal these locations to others.) Belikova jokes that
one leopard has become a "movie star" because he has appeared in
all of the WWF videos. One of the most touching scenes in the
films occurs when a leopard cub discovers a hidden camera, and
spends time close up investigating and pawing it.

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Cross-Border Collaboration Essential for Survival
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7. The survival of the leopards faces serious challenges: from
the highway, from poaching, from the destruction of habitat due
to logging, from inbreeding, and from human encroachment.
Nevertheless, there have been some encouraging signs. One of
these has been the greater contact between Russian and Chinese
environmental groups in the past few years. A number of Russian
environmentalists have visited China recently, where they say
real strides are being made in preserving habitat. According to
Dale Miquelle, who heads the Primorye office of the Wildlife
Conservation Society, the thin band of forest on the Chinese
side of the border used to be a "dead zone," with no signs of
life in evidence -- not even a single bird chirp. With stiffer
penalties on poaching and more consistent patrolling, however,
there are signs that wildlife is reestablishing itself in the
area. Miquelle notes, however, that the forested zone along the
border is very narrow and not in and of itself capable of
sustaining a leopard population. For this reason, cooperation
between Russian and Chinese officials is essential to provide
the leopard with enough range to improve its chances for
survival. A group of Chinese nature reserve specialists are
coming to Primorye to discuss conservation issues this summer.


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