New York, May 5: Warning of global decline of leaopards, new research has found that the elusive but iconic big cat has lost as much as 75 percent of its historic habitat range.
"Leopards' secretive nature, coupled with the occasional, brazen appearance of individual animals within megacities like Mumbai and Johannesburg, perpetuates the misconception that these big cats continue to thrive in the wild -- when actually our study underlies the fact that they are increasingly threatened," said study co-author Luke Dollar, programme director of the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative.
Leopards historically occupied a vast range of approximately 35 million square kilometers throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Today, however, they are restricted to approximately 8.5 million square kilometers, the findings showed.
The results appear to confirm conservationists' suspicions that while the entire species is not yet as threatened as some other big cats, leopards are facing a multitude of growing threats in the wild, and three subspecies have already been almost completely eradicated.
"The leopard is a famously elusive animal, which is likely why it has taken so long to recognise its global decline," study lead author Andrew Jacobson from University College London said.
"This study represents the first of its kind to assess the status of the leopard across the globe and all nine subspecies. Our results challenge the conventional assumption in many areas that leopards remain relatively abundant and not seriously threatened," Jacobson noted.
In addition, the research found that while African leopards face considerable threats, particularly in North and West Africa, leopards have also almost completely disappeared from several regions across Asia, including much of the Arabian Peninsula and vast areas of former range in China and Southeast Asia.
The amount of habitat in each of these regions is plummeting, having declined by nearly 98 percent, the study said.The findings were published in the journal PeerJ.
To obtain their findings, the international team of scientists spent three years reviewing more than 1,300 sources on the leopard's historic and current range.
"We began by creating the most detailed reconstruction of the leopard's historic range to date. This allowed us to compare detailed knowledge on its current distribution with where the leopard used to be and thereby calculate the most accurate estimates of range loss," co-author Peter Gerngross from Austria-based mapping firm BIOGEOMAPS added.
Leopards are capable of surviving in human-dominated landscapes provided they have sufficient cover, access to wild prey and tolerance from local people.
In many areas, however, habitat is converted to farmland and native herbivores are replaced with livestock for growing human populations.
This habitat loss, prey decline, conflict with livestock owners, illegal trade in leopard skins and parts and legal trophy hunting are all factors contributing to leopard decline.