Leopards in Cambodia May Go Extinct as They Battle for Survival and a Place to Live

Cambodia's last breeding population of leopards are rapidly declining. In just a five-year period, the number of Indochinese leopards there has dropped by 72 percent, according to a new study published in early February in Royal Society Open Science.

A team of researchers led by Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) investigated how many leopards there were in Cambodia's eastern plains landscape. What they discovered astonished them. Every 40 square miles held just one leopard—among the lowest concentrations ever recorded in Asia, according to the researchers.

Researchers say that poaching and snaring animals for the illegal wildlife trade and for bushmeat are behind the leopard population drop-off. Panthera-WildCRU-WWF-Cambodia-FA

"This population represents the last glimmer of hope for leopards in all of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—a subspecies on the verge of blinking out," Jan Kamler, co-author and program coordinator for the conservation organization Panthera's southeast Asia leopard program, said in a statement. "No longer can we, as an international community, overlook conservation of this unique wild cat."

Researchers say that poaching and snaring animals for the illegal wildlife trade and bushmeat are behind the population drop-off. Habitat loss, lack of adequate prey for food and conflicts with people exacerbate the threats.

The demand for bushmeat has increased across Southeast Asia, but it's not the leopards people want. The bushmeat market is largely supplied by pig and deer. However, thousands of snares scattered across swaths of land are harming other species too, including these leopards.

The Indochinese leopard population dropped by 72 percent in just five years. In Cambodia’s eastern plains landscape, every 40 square miles held just one leopard—among the lowest concentrations ever recorded in Asia.  Panthera-WildCRU-WWF-Cambodia-FA

When they are caught, "their valuable parts [are] removed and sold to illegal wildlife traders," lead author and WildCRU scientist Susana Rostro-Garcia said in a statement. Leopard skins and other body parts are often sold into the trade.

The species is often seen as adaptable, switching from desert habitats to urban jungles. "But their adaptability risks a deadly complacency," David Macdonald, director of WildCRU and co-author, said in a statement. Per this study's finding, Macdonald said, the Indochinese leopards are "heading for catastrophe."