A new study has revealed that the last breeding population of leopards in Cambodia is at immediate risk of extinction after declining a staggering 72 percent over a five-year period.
The population represents the last remaining leopards in all of eastern Indochina – a region that includes Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
The results were published in the Royal Society Open Science journal by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, in collaboration with Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organisation.
WWF-Cambodia, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Forestry Administration of Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture were also involved in the study.
Jan Kamler, Panthera Southeast Asia leopard programme coordinator, said that this population represented the last glimmer of hope for leopards in all of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“No longer can we, as an international community, overlook conservation of this unique wild cat,” he said. “We must band together in action, not just in words, to curb the epidemic of poaching facing this gorgeous big cat and others around the globe.”
Carried out in Cambodia’s Eastern Plains Landscape, the study revealed one of the lowest concentrations of leopards ever reported in Asia, with a density of one individual per 100 square kilometres.
Increased poaching, especially indiscriminate snaring for the illegal wildlife trade and bushmeat, is to blame for the dramatic decline, according to the study.
The group of researchers was intrigued to find that the primary prey of leopards in Cambodia was banteng – a wild species of cattle whose adults weigh up to 800 kilograms.
In particular, male leopards targeted this large ungulate, making this the only known leopard population whose main prey weighed greater than 500 kilos, more than five times the leopard’s mass.
David Macdonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, said that leopards were a monument to opportunism, adapting to habitats from desert to urban jungle, but their adaptability risked a deadly complacency.
“People think: ‘oh, leopards will be fine.’ They won’t. Almost everywhere they are doing worse than people thought, and our findings show that in Southeast Asia they are heading for catastrophe,” he said.
Susana Rostro-Garcia, scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and lead author of the study, stated that much of the snaring in Cambodia, and across Southeast Asia, was driven by the rising demand for bushmeat.
“Wild landscapes are covered with thousands of snares set to catch wild pig and deer to supply bushmeat markets,” she said.
Mao Khean, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said he once photographed a leopard between 2011 and 2013 that appeared in the Prey Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear province.
He added he had not seen a leopard since, but believed there were still some of the big cats in Cambodia.
In September, the Environment Ministry began discussions with partners to create a plan to import tigers from India and release them in the Sre Pok Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri province.
The government and WWF plan to release a total of eight tigers into the wild in Mondulkiri province by 2022.