August 18, 2016

Leopard, a majestic predator: some interesting facts

Baby-leopards seen.
Baby-leopards seen.

Leopard (Panthera pardus) is a majestic big cat distributed across the continents of Africa and Asia and is severely impacted by deforestation, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and unrestricted hunting as well as poaching. The dominant predator has been reduced to small sub populations across various habitats and ecosystems in Africa and Asia. There are nine sub species of leopard recognized currently, namely, the African, Sinai, Arabian, Persian, Amur, Indochinese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Javan sub species. Although the Asiatic branch of leopards are clearly distinguishable into seven sub species; but, the African sub species of leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) which is distributed over a very large geographical area is recognized as only one, uniform sub species. It is quite surprising that in spite of such a wide distribution and visible geographical isolations in different parts of its huge range in the continent of Africa, this could be designated as only one sub species.
Several other mammalian species belonging to different orders across several continents show a wide range of variation resulting them being classified into different sub species.  Has there been any detailed molecular or genetic studies been ever conducted on comparable isolated, sub populations of African leopards with appreciable sample size? If not this grouping of African leopards into one sub species may be a superficial one. A list of species representing different orders with a wide array of sub species has been included; and the numbers in the parenthesis suggest the current identified sub species for that individual species. If all these species with distinct geographical separation are demonstrating sub specifies level variations, why not the African leopards distributed over a large geographical area and even demonstrating geographical isolations. A comprehensive genetic studies involving advanced molecular tools and techniques need to be employed for finding if the African sub species of leopards could be further split into other sub species or groups.
Order-Carnivora​; Family-Felidae: Leopard (1 African and 8 Asiatic sub species), Lion (1 Asiatic and 7 African sub species with one African sub species extinct in the wild​), Cheetah (1 Asiatic and 4 African sub species), ​Tiger (9 but 3 extinct), Puma (1 North American and 6 Latin American sub species), Jaguar (1 North and 2 South American sub species), Clouded leopard (3), Sunda clouded leopard (2), Snow leopard (2-3), ​Fishing cat (many), Leopard cat (many), Jungle cat (many), Wild cat (many), Sand cat (many), Serval (many), Pallas cat (3), Asian golden cat (3), Marbled cat (2), Ocelot (10), Canadian lynx (2), Eurasian lynx (many), Bobcat (many), Jaguarundi (many), Rusty spotted cat (2), Caracal (7), Pantanal cat (2), Colocolo (2), Pampas cat (5) & Oncilla (4)
Order-​Carnivora; Family-Hyaenidae​: Striped hyena (2 African and 3 Asiatic sub species)
Order-​Carnivora​; Family-Canidae: African wild dog (5), Asiatic wild dog (3), Wolf (several species and sub species), Fox (many species & subspecies), Side striped jackal (7), Golden jackal (2) & Black headed jackal (2) & Coyote (many)
​Order-​Carnivora​; Family-Ursidae​: Bears (many species & subspecies such as Sloth bear (2), Sun bear (2), Asiatic black bear (7), American black bear (16), Brown bear (16))
Order-Perrisodactyla​; Family-Equidae​: Plain’s zebra (6), Mountain zebra (2), Asiatic wild ass (4-6) & African wild ass (2)
Order-Artiodactyla; Family-Girrafidae: Giraffe (9)
​Order-​Proboscidae; Family-Elephentidae​: African elephants (2?) & Asiatic elephants (3)
Order-Perrisodactyla​; Family-Rhinocerotidae: White rhinoceros (2), Black rhinoceros (3), Javan rhinoceros (3 but 2 extinct) & Sumatran rhinoceros (3)
Order-Primate​s: Yellow baboon (3), Chacma baboon (3), Mountain gorilla (2?), Common chimpanzee (4-5), Gibbons (many species & subspecies) & Bornean orangutan (3)
The Arabian leopards once roamed across both the Sinai and the Arabian population suggesting historic range overlap in the past. However, unrestricted hunting has reduced their population so devastatingly, that less than 200 are probably surviving in the wild. Extremely small sub populations have been reported form the Negev desert in Israel. Similar is the state of the Sinai leopard and no leopard sightings are reported from the Sinai in the recent time; hence chances of detecting wild natural hybrids (Arabian leopard X Sinai leopard) now are almost zero. Current status of the Sinai leopard in the wild is quite doubtful and data deficient. The Far Eastern or the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is currently known to be surviving in the form of small population of 25-40 in the Russian Far East. Extensive hunting pressure has almost wiped this predator form their natural habitats.
​Another supportive example for the need to investigate if African leopards could be split into further sub species based on modern genetic analysis; is the case of the Sunda Clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi). The Sunda clouded leopard was believed for a long time as a sub species of Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and used to be called Borneo clouded leopard; until latest molecular studies found it to be an altogether different species. Furthermore, two sub species of Sunda clouded leopard is now also recognized. It will be also interesting to investigate if there are range overlaps among different sub species of Asiatic leopards particularly those that are in closer geographical proximity such as the Indochinese leopard of China and SE Asia and the Indian leopard of the Indian subcontinent around southern fringes of China, western Myanmar and NE India along the remote Indo-China and Indo-Myanmar border regions. It will be also interesting to note if any wild natural leopard hybrids (Indochinese leopard X Indian leopard) are available in these geographic region. Possible range overlaps with other Asiatic leopard sub species seem to be unlikely due to vast natural barriers and geographical separation in the form of large deserts, river valleys and high mountain ranges. The species is in dire need for conservation in all the habitats across Africa and Asia. Some of the sub species such as the Sinai, Arabian, Amur, Javan are showing sharp decline in populations or are rarely sighted in their wild habitats; and hence need active conservation for their long term survival. It is sad to mention that the majestic predator is showing a sharp decline in their global population.


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