Cambodia’s Leopards Could Be Extinct in Just Two Years

The big cat species could endure the same fate as the country’s tigers, which were declared extinct in 2016.
A leopard captured with a camera trap in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary. (Photo: GDANCP/WWF-Cambodia)
Jun 6, 2016· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Cambodia’s population of leopards has fallen to as few as 20 big cats, and the species could be extinct in as little as two years, conservationists have warned.

The news comes just two months after the Cambodian government announced that tigers are extinct in the country and one month after it was revealed that the world’s leopards have lost about 75 percent of their historic range throughout Asia and Africa.

As with Cambodia’s tigers, the leopards’ decline is the result of rampant poaching in the protected forests in Mondulkiri province, their last known habitat in the country.

“Leopards survived longest in Mondulkiri because this is the least populated province in Cambodia,” said Jan Kamler, the Southeast Asia coordinator for Panthera’s leopard program.

That could soon change. Kamler said the leopards appear to be the victims of widespread illegal snares set across Mondulkiri to catch a range of wildlife. Hunters can legally target wild pigs and muntjac—a small, native deer species—in the forest, but snares are banned because they kill indiscriminately.

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Hunting animals to sell the meat is also illegal, but Kamler said commercial trade has driven the increase in snares and poaching. “The locals are not killing animals for personal consumption, but rather they’re killing them for profit to sell the meat to buyers who supply markets locally, nationally, and internationally,” he said.

Vietnam, which borders the province, is a major market for the meat from Mondulkiri, Kamler said. “For the most part, Vietnam has no wildlife left in their country, so they buy anything and everything from the Cambodians.”

Leopards are so rare that Kamler doesn’t think poachers target them. But if a hunter happens across leopard tracks or droppings, they could change tactics in anticipation of a big paycheck. “The Vietnamese pay high prices for leopard parts because they are used in traditional Asian medicine,” he said.

With populations so low, there is a fear the cats could start inbreeding, which could create genetic problems and further threaten their long-term survival. Similar effects have been seen in Florida’s panthers and Russia’s Amur leopards. “DNA analysis of Amur leopards showed low levels of genetic diversity, similar to that seen in Florida panthers,” Kamler said. “Amur leopards are starting to show up in pictures with stumped tails and other unique markings, indicating inbreeding depression is occurring.”

There is hope the leopards’ situation could be turned around if the snaring crisis is resolved, but time is running out.

“I think the extinction of tigers in Cambodia will help motivate political will to help save the leopards,” Kamler said. “However, I don’t know and can’t predict how much that will result in action. Everybody I spoke to in the government seemed concerned, and they promised to do more, but it’s yet to be seen if that will result in real action, such as hiring more rangers.”