Leopards Have Lost Up to 75 Percent of Their Habitat Worldwide

A leopard perches in a tree in South Africa's Kruger National Park. New research suggests leopards are more vulnerable than previously thought. Mike Hutchings/REUTERS

Leopards are found over a wider range than any other big cat, originally stretching throughout Africa, Eurasia and some Pacific islands, from deserts to jungles. Solitary, nocturnal and shy, they are not commonly seen by humans. Even during safaris in areas of sub-Saharan Africa where they are doing well, it is an unusual treat to see a leopard.

While they are also more versatile than most big cats—eating the widest range of prey species—that doesn't mean they've adapted to humans. New research shows that these elusive cats are more threatened than we thought.

Leopards are now found in only 25 percent to 37 percent of their original habitat, according to a study published May 4 in the journal PeerJ.

"Leopards' secretive nature, coupled with the occasional, brazen appearance of individual animals within megacities like Mumbai and Johannesburg, perpetuates the misconception that these big cats continue to thrive in the wild—when actually our study underlines the fact that they are increasingly threatened," Luke Dollar, a study co-author and program director of the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, told NatGeo.

Conducted by a large team of scientists, the study is the largest of its kind, compiling 6,000 records of leopard abundance at 2,500 locations. The researchers found that leopards now occupy a range of 3.3 million square miles, down from a high of 13.5 million square miles.

Leopard have lost up to 75 of their former range, as this map shows. Some sub-species, like the Amur (P. p. orientalis), Arabian (P. p. nimr) and north Chinese (P. p. japonensis) leopards, are doing worse than others. Jacobson et al / PeerJ

The leopard's decline is particularly severe in North Africa, where the animal has lost 99 percent of its habitat; West Africa (86 percent to 95 percent loss); and the Arabian Peninsula and East Asia, where it's found in only a few pockets. Leopards are doing best in areas of sub-Saharan Africa and India, according to the study.

As with other large carnivores, leopards (Panthera pardus) are threatened by loss and degradation of habitat (especially by conversion of land to agriculture), depletion of prey animals, poaching for their skins and body parts (used in Asian medicine) and indiscriminate killing.

The paper found that only 17 percent of their remaining habitat was protected.

There are three subspecies of leopard—the Amur (P. p. orientalis), Arabian (P. p. nimr), and north Chinese (P. p. japonensis)—that are doing much worse than the others. These animals have lost 98 percent of their former territory and aren't receiving as much research and attention as they deserve, according to the study.