In the extreme southeast of the country, close to the borders with China and North Korea, Russia has established a 650,000-acre national park to protect what is regarded as the world’s rarest cat, the Amur leopard. Around 70-80 individuals are estimated to survive in the wild, making this protected area – which covers around 60% of the leopards’ habitat – a vital step forward in the effort to save this species from extinction. The remote forested area within Russia’s Primorsky Krai region also encompasses the cats’ breeding grounds, a move which provides the Amur leopard population with its best possible chance of expanding. 2017 also saw the opening of a $6million research centre within Land of the Leopard, with its administrative building and laboratories comprising the world’s largest facility dedicated to the conservation of the Amur leopard. The enterprise has also added a hotel and museum for visitors to the park to enjoy. To embark on a trip to this far-flung corner of the world, in search of the rarest feline of them all, is to truly step into the wild.
The rarest of the rare
A decade ago, the wild population of Amur leopards was thought to number no more than 30. Today, despite still being listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, the world’s rarest cat is beginning to make a comeback. Still, few people have ever seen an Amur leopard in the wild, and most footage and photographic evidence of the species comes from specimens in captivity or remote camera traps.
Although smaller than most other leopard subspecies, the Amur leopard is well adapted for its life in the hills and forests of southeast Asia that it calls home. Its thick fur insulates it when the winter snows start to fall, and when hunting prey – usually deer, moose and wild pig, but sometimes smaller mammals and even young black bears – the big cat can reach speeds of up to 37mph.
The Amur leopard is a solitary hunter, ranging across a territory that can comprise between 19 and 116 square miles, depending on the individual. They share some of their high-altitude habitat with the much larger Siberian tiger, and will actively avoid encounters by settling on steep ridges, offering them a vantage point from which they can track their prey – and any competitors – from afar.