It’s 4:30am in the Russian Far East, and a shadowy figure pads its way through the dim forests of Primorsky Krai. The world’s rarest cat is on the hunt.
Mists rise wraithlike along the surrounding mountain ridges, which extend easterly to the Sea of Japan and westerly to China’s Jilin Province. Buck musk and rot pervade the morning vapors. The cat pauses beneath a Manchurian ash tree to sniff the air. At the flick of its tail, a remote-sensor triggers a flash of light that erupts from within the undergrowth and illuminates, for a fraction of a second, the viridescent eyes, dark rosettes, and deep umber coat of the Amur leopard.
Camera traps such as this, placed strategically across 900,000 acres of known Amur leopard habitat, capture thousands of photographs that enable conservationists to monitor the population of the planet’s most endangered cat.
According to a census carried out with the support of WWF Russia earlier this year, only about 60 Amur leopards remain in the wild. As low as this number may seem, it actually represents a promising increase from the measurement of a 2007 study, which revealed that the population had plummeted to a staggering low of 30 cats.
Amur leopards once roamed the mountains, woodlands, and marshes of North and South Korea, southeast Russia, and northeast China. But as enormous tracts of land are regularly burned to create farms, or over-harvested to meet the demands of the timber and pulpwood industries, the leopards’ native habitat grows increasingly restricted.
Now, cornered in a tiny pocket of boreal forest and wavering on the verge of collapse, the subspecies faces threats from every angle.
Poachers target Amur leopards for their beautifully spotted coats, which earn a handsome price on the black market, and for their bones, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Local villagers over-hunt the wild deer and boar on which the leopards rely, forcing them to prey on livestock instead. Consequently, they face the retaliatory wrath of farmers, who frequently shoot the big cats. As population dwindles, diseases wrought by inbreeding jeopardize lifespan and compromise reproduction. Additionally, the Amur leopard shares its shrinking habitat with the Amur tiger–more commonly known as the Siberian tiger–and must therefore compete for survival in fierce territorial clashes.
From the brink of extinction, the view does not look good.
But, in late June, Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources formally approved a plan that could save the Amur leopard from joining the ranks of animals that have slipped into oblivion.
The solution may lie in captive breeding. Genetically viable Amur leopards kept in zoos around the world will be bred to yield a new population of cubs. These cubs will then be nurtured and raised in a protected reserve in the Russian Far East, in an area where the wild population has already been exhausted. Conservationists hope that eventually, the leopards will reestablish a robust population in their native territory.
“The offspring produced by these leopards will undertake a special training program,” said Elena Starostina, press secretary for the Amur Branch of WWF Russia. “Only those pupils who pass the survival examination–that is, show excellent hunting skills and the ability to avoid man and tigers–will be allowed freedom.”
Captive breeding is a common practice that allows zoos to maintain backup populations for rare or endangered species. The reintroduction of zoo-bred animals into wild habitats, however, is far less common, and it is generally used as a last resort to recover nearly decimated populations.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) runs several species survival plans that have facilitated successful reintroductions of critically endangered animals. Red wolves, black-footed ferrets, California condors, and golden lion tamarins all stand as testaments to the triumphs of well-executed conservation efforts.
In some cases, breeding programs are able to maintain higher levels of genetic diversity in captive populations than in those that exist in the wild. For animals as rare as the Amur leopards and tigers, maintaining a genetically diverse population is absolutely essential in order to avoid disease.
“We maintain books for all of these species that track their pedigrees,” Tara Harris, coordinator of the AZA’s Tiger Species Survival Plan and Vice President for Conservation at the Minnesota Zoo, explains to BTR. “We can trace every single one back to the wild-caught animal that was originally brought in, so we know which animals are more genetically valuable than others.”
In that sense, captive-bred animals serve as a sort of genetic insurance plan for the wild populations. However, as with any good insurance plan, the hope is that it won’t be necessary.
“Obviously, we want to do everything that we can to secure the current wild population as a priority,” says Harris. “AZA accredited zoos and aquariums reach 180 million visitors a year, and we contribute $160 million a year to field conservation efforts, making us a powerful force in saving wildlife.”
For the Amur leopards, the next step in conserving the wild population would be the establishment of a Sino-Russian nature reserve that could protect animals on both sides of the national border. In the meantime, Russia’s new reintroduction initiative may be the cats’ only lifeline.
“A single disease could erase this handful of leopards from the face of the Earth,” said Dr. Yury Darman, director of the WWF Russia Amur Branch. “Therefore, bringing the Amur leopard back to southern Sikhote-Alin, where the beast lived half a century ago, is a necessity. I believe that the start of the reintroduction program, which experts have dreamed about for almost  years, is a historic moment.”