The vast territory occupied by leopards (Panthera pardus) all over the world has diminished by as much as 75 percent — a shocking amount that is far worse than what scientists feared, a new study revealed.

The report, which is the most comprehensive analysis yet regarding the entire range and all nine subspecies of leopards, has prompted scientists to urge for increased conservation efforts and awareness about the plight of the big cats.

"We hoped to raise its profile and say 'this cat needs your attention,'" says conservationist Andrew Jacobson, lead author of the study.

The State Of Leopard Range In Asia And Africa

To form a comprehensive reconstruction of leopards' range, Jacobson and his colleagues examined 6,000 records located at 2,500 different places from more than 1,300 sources, including scientific literature.

The research team found that leopards have historically lived in an extensive range of roughly 13.5 million square miles (35 million square kilometers) of land throughout Asia, Middle East, and Africa.

Now, however, the extent of their territory has shrunk to only 3.3 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers).

Leopards occupying Asia have been badly hit in particular. Jacobson says six regions in Asia including the Arabian Peninsula lost more than 95 percent of the habitat where the big cats had been, which is "almost completely wiped out."

What could have caused the massive loss of territory and massive leopard decline? Experts point to centuries of hunting by humans, conflict with livestock owners, prey decline, and illegal trade in leopard skins. There also seems to be a link between the economic development in Asia and the decline in leopard populations.

Jacobson says development in China and several Southeast Asian countries have constricted leopard habitat for decades. They are worried the trend will manifest in Africa as economies grow and other big cats, such as lions, also see decline in population in the continent.

Meanwhile, habitat losses in Africa varied greatly. Habitat range in North Africa decreased by 99 percent. In West Africa it amounted to 95 percent, but in Southern Africa it was 51 percent.

Boost Conservation Efforts

Jacobson believes that leopards can still bounce back from the devastating habitat losses. He says these animals are incredibly adaptable.

"We just need to ease off on the hunting pressure, the persecution," he says.

Although leopards are not considered endangered species yet, Jacobson says greater conservation efforts are needed to stop the dramatic habitat decline. He says being proactive about the situation can make it happen.

Study co-author Philip Henschel says there has been a severe blind spot in the conservation of leopards.

But now that data has confirmed the growing threats leopards face, Henschel says the international conservation community must strengthen their commitment in protecting the species.

"Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard's fate," adds Henschel.

The findings are featured in the journal PeerJ. The study was conducted by experts from the Zoological Society of London, Panthera, the Big Cats Initiative of the National Geographic Society, and the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Photo : Greg Willis | Flickr

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