Recently, I have been pondering on the same question over and over again. “Would there be no more lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants and rhinos before I grow old?” This may seem far-fetched to some but it can just very well be the truth. All it needs are a few years and some natural human instincts, such as greed, vanity and selfishness, to kick in. Has it ever crossed your mind of an Africa with no lions? Would the future generation be able to see a living, breathing, running Cheetah? Would they even know how the only cat strong enough to vertically lift prey the same size, or sometimes even larger, than itself look like?

Big cats have always held a special place in the hearts of many. Maybe it’s their grace, beauty, power, strength and vitality that we can relate to, to emulate or to possess. Is this then, the reason that many of them have been hunted to near extinction? Killed for their coats and various body parts in the belief of medicinal values, or to merely satisfy our selfish vanity? Of course, on the other side of the coin, big cats are also seen as pests in many parts of the world due to their predation on livestock. Attacks on humans have not exactly helped their reputation either. These man-eaters drive home the fact that in certain places, man is not on top of the food chain. Is this another reason why we feel threatened, not for our general safety, but a fear of not being in the driver’s seat and a fear of the unknown?

When I say “Big Cat”, what pops up in your mind? We have all heard of Lions, Tigers, Cheetahs, Cougars, Jaguars and Leopards, but what of the subspecies? The least known of all big cats would probably have to be the Amur Leopard. I have only recently came across this leopard subspecies in a wildlife documentary and was horrified to find out that there are only 30 to 35 individuals remaining in the wild! It was officially classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN since 1996!

The Amur Leopard used to be found in north eastern China, Russia and in the Korean peninsula. However, now, it can only be found to the southwest of the Primorye region in Russia, and I use the term ‘found’ very loosely. At first glance, these magnificent cats may be mistaken for Snow Leopards due to their thick coats and long tails but they are actually a subspecies of the African Leopard. So, what was it that has driven this subspecies to the brink of extinction? Well, if I said it was US that have driven them into exile, it shouldn’t come as a surprise should it?

The reason of their decline can be attributed mainly to illegal hunting and loss of habitat. Of course, there are other factors which I’m not in a position to explain or have the necessary expertise (see Disclaimer). So, I’ll just stick with what I know. Leopard coats are highly valued among the rich as a symbol of wealth and beauty and can fetch a hefty amount. Naturally, this fuels the desperate to illegal poaching. Despite anti-poaching teams patrolling in leopard territory, the problem persists. Then, there is also killing of leopards by revengeful farmers whose livestock have been taken by the cats, despite given compensation for their loss.  Wars between farmers and big cats have been going on for centuries and it does not take very long to know who would come out on top.

Moreover, frequent land burning to improve land fertility for livestock and other commercial purposes, such as road building and mineral extraction, has irrevocably changed the Primorye landscape to permanent grasslands. These cats need cover to hunt successfully. They are not sprinters like the cheetah. With one end being chased by angry farmers and poachers, and the other end hard-pressed to find food, it is no wonder that even these hardy cats are finding it harder and harder to survive.

In addition, man also has an indirect effect on the Amur leopard population; by affecting prey population, upsetting the food chain. Illegal poaching is not only restricted to leopards but also numerous other species such as the Eurasian black bears and deer, where their bones are believed to have medicinal properties. Forest degradation has also altered the prey density available for the leopards. Prey scarcity and dwindling habitat do not bode well for the survival of the Amur Leopard. On top of that, due to highly restricted gene diversity, another indirect effect of human intervention, the problem of inbreeding could very well jeopardize their already dwindling numbers.

Of course, there are already efforts taken to preserve this beautiful feline but I would like to add my 2 cents. Is it really worth it to take a life in exchange for few minutes of fame and beauty? To make it worse, it takes a few pelts to make one coat! I once heard this in a wildlife documentary and am struck by how obviously easy it is for everyone to contribute in protecting nature if only they would understand. “The fur industry is a supply and demand industry. If demand stops then so would supply!”  This also applies to the Chinese medicine industry! It only exists because there is a high demand for it! If demand were to stop, then so would supply. It really is just that simple and straightforward!

In a nutshell, the main reason why conservationist efforts seldom bear fruit (at least from my POV) is because everyone is assuming that someone else would protect the endangered species. Coupled with an inadequate awareness and understanding of nature, this spells disaster. What really frustrates me is when people say animals are all the same or adopt a ‘don’t care’ attitude when it comes to animals. Ignorance is just as dangerous as violence! Would it make sense for me to say that everyone is the same just because we are all humans?! NO! If so, then why should animals be treated anymore differently from us? From the way I see it, it’s a blatant act of disregard, disrespect, insecurity and ignorance that needs to be shed for a better world for the future generation! This ‘I am better than you’ attitude needs to be dropped! So what if animals have not been blessed with the same power of speech as us? Does it make us better than them? As quoted from renowned film maker and conservationist, Dereck Joubert, “Yes, their (the animals’) world is a violent one, but at least it is not a malicious one.” It is high time we realize that we are not living in this world alone! We are SHARING it with other living creatures. Everyone can play a role in saving these animals, no matter how insignificant it may seem. I am not sure whether my piece would be effective in raising awareness, if any at all, but I do believe that we should try to correct the wrongs that we have done. Of course, to a casual reader, there will be other more important issues that need to be tackled. But if everyone was to think like that, then who is going to save these magnificent animals? Yes, they are wild and they are supposedly able to look after themselves, but it has reached that point where they cannot make a comeback on their own anymore! I do understand that it will not be easy to change centuries of tradition and customs, but it is up to us to see to it. If we believe, then there’s still hope! I sincerely believe that they too deserve a chance to share this world with us! So give them a chance and lend a helping hand!

For more information on how to help the Amur Leopard, just visit www.amur-leopard.org or adopt an Amur Leopard at the local WWF.

This is my very first piece that I’ve written and got published! The one that was published has somewhat been edited because I had too many personal opinions in it, and it was for the university’s science column.For those interested, here’s the link:
 http://theboar.org/science/2012/apr/2/rare-leopard-faces-extinction/

JV.

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