Cambodia’s population of spotted Indochinese leopards will be extinct by 2018 unless action is taken to deal with the “snaring crisis” in Mondolkiri province, where the few remaining leopards live, according to the author of a forthcoming paper on the issue.
Jan Kamler, a specialist on large carnivores who has spent the last four years monitoring leopards in Mondolkiri—most recently as coordinator of the Panthera conservation group’s leopard program in Southeast Asia—said the end could be near for the rare species.
“There are between 20 and 30 left,” he said of the country’s Indochinese leopards. “Once you get below 20, inbreeding starts, and that is the end.”
Over a period of six months, starting in December, Mr. Kamler set up a network of 86 camera traps in two areas of the eastern plains landscape in Mondolkiri province. He said he only recorded nine different leopards, a marked decline from earlier surveys in 2009 and 2014, which also saw falling numbers.
“I would say there is a snaring crisis across Southeast Asia right now and especially in Cambodia. More and more snares are being found further within core protected areas,” he said. “If nothing changes, this decline shows the likely extinction of leopards by 2018.”
The journal PeerJ published a groundbreaking paper on global leopard range loss this month, in which the authors found that up to 75 percent of their former range across Asia and Africa had been lost, explained Mr. Kamler, who contributed data for Southeast Asia, where the number is even higher. He said 95 percent of leopard range had been lost in the region, resulting in only three existing pockets of leopards—in Thailand along the Burmese border, peninsular Malaysia and eastern Cambodia.
“That paper shocked people. Everyone has been focused on the tigers, and no one realized that the leopard is following [the same fate],” Mr. Kamler said. “Now we need to take action to protect them, especially the unique spotted population still living in a functioning ecosystem.”
Indochinese leopards are one of nine known leopard subspecies, once found living in areas from Burma to Singapore. While most have black fur, the spotted leopards in Cambodia are unique, probably as a result of the open, dry forests of the eastern plains, Mr. Kamler explained.
In the short term, the researcher said there are two solutions to help the leopard population survive: removing snare-traps from the forests and improving enforcement of existing regulations though increasing the number of park rangers.
“If you removed the snares, the population would rebound almost immediately,” he said, noting that leopards—which can produce litters of three or four cubs every two years—are particularly susceptible to the traps due to their expansive roaming areas.
“Leopards currently can’t hunt and raise their young without stepping in snares,” Mr. Kamler said.
He has also noted a worrying trend in the use of electrified traps, and has come up against poachers trying to avoid detection.
During the 2014 survey, 2 percent of his cameras were stolen or damaged. This year, the number was over 20 percent. Typically, cameras are secured to trees with locks, but two were shot at, one tree was felled to steal a camera and one camera even photographed a man urinating on it.
The recent discovery of electrified fences set up around watering holes, a technique borrowed from neighboring Vietnam, shows that hunters are sharing knowledge on how to capture bigger animals more efficiently, Mr. Kamler said.
The eastern plains in Mondolkiri are also home to the world’s largest population of endangered banteng, as well as populations of Eld’s deer, dhole, a type of wild dog, and other primate and bird species.
“I didn’t see this four years ago,” he said. “It kills everything, from a leopard up to a Banteng, even a human.”
Mr. Kamler said that while efforts to encourage local communities to find alternate sources of income were important, it likely would not dissuade villagers from hunting animals that are highly valuable in the illegal wildlife trade, such as big cats.
Wild tigers have been the most sought-after prey in the region, netting poachers over $10,000 per catch, but Mr. Kamler said leopards were also highly valuable, with skins fetching over $1,000 and bones trading at over $50 per kilogram.
“In my opinion, if you teach local people to make baskets or such like, they will still go out and hunt something that might be worth so much more,” he said, noting that such training was more effective in reducing poaching of less valuable animals.
Patrolling of the Mondolkiri Protected Forest is currently carried out by 40 Ministry of Environment rangers alongside 10 Forestry Administration rangers and 11 border police officers, who are trained and funded by conservation NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said WWF-Cambodia conservation program manager Mark Dubois on Thursday.
“We can save the leopard but much needs to be done by ourselves, our partners and government,” he wrote in an email, noting that all parties were “seriously prioritizing” the issue of saving Cambodia’s leopards.
He explained that WWF-Cambodia was continuing efforts to remove snares and prosecute traders and poachers, as well as working with authorities to close markets and restaurants selling illicit bush meat.
Chhit Sophal, director of the Mondolkiri provincial environment department, said on Thursday that news of the imminent extinction of leopards was “concerning.”
While local authorities were trying to prevent poaching and remove snares and other traps, he said the effectiveness of these efforts was hindered by a lack of people to patrol the 400,000-hectare protected forest.
Mr. Kamler said efforts by authorities to punish poachers would be greatly aided by the end of the year, when he expects the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to update the status of Indochinese leopards to “endangered,” which carries far tougher penalties for poachers.
“Killing an endangered species carries jail time in Cambodia, as opposed to killing more common species, which only results in a fine,” he said.
He also said that recently announced plans to reintroduce tigers to Mondulkiri Protected Forest by 2019, which would involve hiring more than 100 new rangers, would benefit all animals in Mondolkiri’s forests, including leopards.
After meeting with provincial authorities earlier this week, Mr. Kamler said that there seemed to be strong local will to save the leopards.
“If I come back in two years and the population has improved, it would be a rare success story in Southeast Asia,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)