Amur leopard cameratrap 2015-24-02
A camera trap snap of one of 57 Amur leopards living in Land of the Leopard National Park. © Land of the Leopard National Park

You'd be lucky to spot an Amur leopard in the wild. These critically endangered animals are amongst the rarest big cats in the world. But a new census shows that they might just be making a comeback (albeit a slow one). According to recent census data, at least 57 individual Amur leopards currently live in Russia's Land of the Leopard National Park, an area that covers roughly 60 percent of the species' habitat. The new figure is up from the 30 cats counted there in 2007. Add to this the 12 or so leopards recorded in habitat adjacent to the park and all this means that the area's population has more than doubled in less than a decade. That's a big score for the world's rarest cats.

Counting solitary animals like the Amur leopard is no small undertaking. Park rangers and experts from the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences scattered remote camera traps across more than 1,400 square miles (3,600 square kilometres) of prime Amur leopard habitat. The cameras captured over 10,000 photos that were used by researchers to painstakingly identify the 57 individual animals. Although leopards may all look quite similar, no two leopards have the same spots. This allowed researchers to identify each individual cat.

"Despite still being on the brink of extinction, the Amur leopard is showing encouraging signs of gradual recovery, demonstrating that dedicated conservation efforts do pay off. The collaboration between Russia and China to protect vast areas of suitable leopard habitat is the next key step to protect this species," notes Carlos Drews, director of WWF´s global species programme.

And the good news for big cats doesn't end there. Recent footage of a family of Amur tigers captured by a WWF camera trap is the first video evidence ever recorded of this species in China. It is believed that the cubs in the clip were raised in China as the distance to the Russian border is too far for them to have travelled.

“These images show that Wangqing Nature Reserve has now become a breeding site for Amur tigers. Seeing these positive outcomes from our efforts greatly strengthens our confidence that wild Amur tiger populations can be restored,” said Wang Fuyou, division head of the Wangqing Nature Reserve conservation department.

According to WWF officials, the next plan could be to establish a nature reserve that stretches across both China and Russia to help monitor big cat populations in both countries.

Header image: Ian Duffy