By now it’s hardly news that big cats across the world have been affected by environmental changes, and their populations are shrinking in many areas, often due to human activity impacting their habitats.
Even the highly adaptable leopards have suffered, with a comprehensive study earlier this year showing that leopard populations worldwide have lost nearly three quarters of their historical range. As a species, leopards are now listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but there are subspecies in more dire straits.
One of these is the endangered Caucasian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor), a pale spotted animal native to the Caucasus region. Once abundant across its range, it’s now scarce and resides in highly sheltered and inaccessible parts of the mountainous wilderness.
Fewer than 1,300 Caucasian leopards—also known as Persian leopards—are thought to be left in the wild, with most of these surviving in Iran and Turkmenistan. A few are found in Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey, but precise knowledge of their numbers is extremely difficult to come by.
Australian-born wildlife photographer Adrian Steirn experienced these hardships firsthand when he embarked on a journey to track down evidence of the last few of these leopards in the remote subtropical forests of Azerbaijan’s Hirkan National Park.
Learn more about Caucasian leopards and Steirn’s journey in
Mission Critical: The World’s Most Wanted Leopard tonight on NatGeo WILD 7.30pm AEDT
To track down an extremely rare animal, you need deep knowledge of the local environment, perseverance, camera traps, and luck. But once the presence of an endangered species is documented in a particular area, this footage is invaluable to conservation specialists.
I spent 4 years looking for the Caucasian Leopard in Azerbaijan. We brought back the first video footage of the big cat in the country and the Government and WWF took steps to protect it. The documentary that tells the story of the project and my adventure airs globally on National Geographic Wild in December. So proud to be working with great people around the world and being a small part of positive change. The photo I have posted is the first photo of a female with cubs in that area! It means that Europe still has a viable population of Leopard left. ..................... ------------------------------------------- Repost: Incredible news just in from Azerbaijan. A female Caucasian Leopard and two cubs have been captured on camera traps proving for the first time that natural reintroduction is beginning in the region. Four years ago I embarked upon the adventure of a lifetime to document the critically endangered Caucasian Leopard in the remote Hirkan National Park. No documentary evidence of the Leopard existed in the region, and our film shows the quest to locate and capture footage of this beautiful creature in the depths of Hirkan's forests and mountains. There were many times I thought our quest was in vain, but with the energy and commitment of the Ministry of Ecology, IDEA and WWF Azerbaijan we now have the most positive news in decades for the future of the Caucasian Leopard. Watch the story unfold in The World's Most Wanted Leopard on Nat Geo WILD, airing globally through December. @leyla999 @natgeowild_uk @natgeo @wwf_uk @wwf @idea_campaign
Evidence of a species is instrumental in establishing projects aimed at protecting its habitat and, potentially, creating reintroduction programs—which is exactly what’s been happening in the Hirkan for the past two years.
According to the WWF, there is now evidence that the program is working, with a female leopard and two cubs captured on a camera trap in Hirkan in October this year. Azerbaijan only has a handful of these big cats left, but at least there's a little bit of positive news, too.