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Leopards Have Lost 75 Percent of Their Historic Range

The first-ever comprehensive analysis of the big cat paints a grim picture.

Worldwide, leopards have lost about 75 percent of their historic range, according to a new survey – the first to attempt to get a glimpse of the big cat's remaining global paw print.

The analysis was produced by a group of partner organizations, including the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Panthera.

Snow Leopards Caught On Camera: Photos

The researchers, whose findings have been published in the journal PeerJ, studied more than 1,300 sources containing information on the cat's current and historic ranges.

Meanwhile, mapping firm BIOGEOMAPS reconstructed the animal's historic range and overlaid it with the current assessments.

"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," said the firm's Peter Gerngross, who co-authored the study, in a statement.

Endangered Species Watch: Amur Leopard

The results painted a grim picture for the standard-bearer leopard Panthera pardus and its nine subspecies (also included in the range analysis).

The study found that the leopard's range today occupies 3.3 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers) – down from its historic range of 13.5 million square miles (35 million square kilometers).

"Our results challenge the conventional assumption in many areas that leopards remain relatively abundant and not seriously threatened," said lead author Andrew Jacobson, of the ZSL, who added that the leopard's notoriously elusive nature may have helped hide evidence of its decline.

The team notes a near disappearance of leopards in several parts of Asia as well as continued struggles of the animal in Africa, especially in the north and west of the continent.

Top 10 Camera Trap Wildlife Photos

The researchers said that more attention needed to be paid to the most at-risk subspecies.

"We found that while leopard research was increasing," the authors wrote, "research effort was primarily on the subspecies with the most remaining range, whereas subspecies that are most in need of urgent attention were neglected."

"Of these subspecies," said Jacobson, "the Javan leopard (P. p. melas) is currently classified as critically endangered by the IUCN, while another - the Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya) - is classified as endangered, highlighting the urgent need to understand what can be done to arrest these worrying declines."

Elusive and endangered, snow leopard are even more threatened than previously thought, according to a

new report

. The report, by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) just before World Snow Leopard Day, found that numbers of these big cats have declined by more than 20 percent over the past 16 years. One reason is that the human population continues to increase in Central Asia's high altitude region, where snow leopards evolved to exist. The report found that more than 330 million people live within 6 miles of rivers originating in snow leopard habitat. "As the number of people living in the region grows, the population of snow leopards declines," WWF spokesperson Lorin Hancock told Discovery News. "With as few as 4000 snow leopards left in the wild, they are increasingly vulnerable to a number of threats."

Photos: Snow Leopard Cub Makes its Debut

The current range of snow leopards is huge, spanning across 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Many snow leopard populations, however, are small and fragmented. The report also shows that climate change is adversely affecting the big cats, with nearly a third of their habitat predicted to be lost in the near future. "Climate change will likely destroy nearly 30 percent of snow leopard habitat in the mountain ranges of Central Asia," Hancock said. "Rising temperatures and volatile weather expedite glacial melt and change water availability, which also puts pressure on local and downstream communities and agricultural productivity."

GPS to Track Endangered Snow Leopards

This little yawning leopard cub hopefully will survive all of the challenges that members of its species,

Panthera uncia

, face. Habitat loss is the greatest problem, as new human settlements, roads and mines encroach on the snow leopards' remaining range. 
 Without such human-related problems, this species is one of the planet's toughest predators. "The snow leopard is an incredible animal adapted to live in some of the harshest conditions in the world," WWF Asian species expert Nilanga Jayasinge told Discovery News. "It is truly a symbol of Asia's high mountains."

Top 10 Camera Trap Wildlife Photos

It is rare to see any snow leopard, much less a mother and a cub together. Snow leopards are so elusive that they have been given the nickname "ghost-cat" by locals. "Snow leopards roam the mountains almost entirely unseen, contributing to their local name of 'ghost-cat,'" Hancock said. "We only know the range of these animals thanks to GPS collaring and camera traps."

Video: Using Drones To Protect Nature

This adult snow leopard is scanning his surroundings, looking for prey. Hancock explained that a favorite prey animal is blue sheep, but added that "these and other prey species are disappearing, making it increasingly difficult for snow leopards to hunt."

World's Rarest Cat Doubles in Population Size

Poaching and illegal trading of the snow leopard's exquisite fur and body parts pose additional threats. A

Snow Leopard Trust fact sheet

, for example, says, "Their bones and other body parts are in demand for use in traditional Asian medicine and wild snow leopards are sometimes captured for private animal collections in Central Asia."

In the icy Himalayan Mountains, snow leopards seem completely unfazed by the challenging environment. For years, scientists even suspected that snow leopards had blood that was better at retaining and distributing oxygen than that of other cats. A recent

study

conducted by Jay Storz of the University of Nebraska and colleagues, however, found that snow leopard blood is no better evolved for high altitudes than that of common domestic cats. Storz now suspects that snow leopards compensate for the poor oxygen capacity of their blood by simply breathing harder. It "sounds crazy, but I think it is possible," he said.

The Altai-Sayan Ecoregion stretches across Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China. A report in the journal New Scientist found that the region's mix of mammals has been among the least changed since the last ice age, in comparison to the mammal populations of any other regions on Earth. The northernmost habitat of the snow leopard is located within the Altai-Sayan region. While three major UNESCO World Culture and Natural Heritage Sites are also in the area, there are still threats to snow leopards and the Ecoregion's other animals. These are some of the same threats, such as poaching and illegal wildlife trade, affecting the big cats in other locations.

Camera traps allow researchers to monitor and photograph animals without directly intruding on them. Some savvy feline individuals, however, detect slight sounds and vibrations given off by the cameras, and come in for a closer look. There is hope for this snow leopard and other since, WWF and several partners -- supported by USAID -- are now connecting and integrating snow leopard conservation with local human livelihoods, water and food security, and climate change adaptation, Hancock said.

Snow leopards do what comes naturally, and that can include preying upon valuable livestock. Clever solutions, though, are helping to permit all to co-exist within the same general regions. For example, "In the past, baby yaks were habitually preyed upon by snow leopards, but since construction of the first predator-proof corral in October 2012, not a single loss due to predation has been reported," Hancock said. Jayasinge added, "Working with local communities, governments and other stakeholders is critical for snow leopard conservation -- preventing human-wildlife conflict, raising awareness and engaging communities in conservation efforts builds community good will towards the big cat and conservation in general."