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[Viewpoint]Leopards on the decline

The leopard captured on Mount Jiri in 1963 was the last to be seen in Korea, and no trace of any more has been found.

Jan 28,2009

According to the 2008 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 5,966 vertebrate species are endangered. The number represents an 80 percent increase from the 3,314 endangered vertebrate species a decade ago. Some scholars believe that if the trend continues, these endangered species will be extinct in the next five decades.

The causes of the extinctions include the shrinking of habitats due to mountain and farmland development and urbanization, excessive hunting and poaching, pollution, disease, and changes in the ecosystem caused by global warming.

The mighty leopard is no exception to these forces, though it faces some unique sets of challenges when confronted with man.

There are nine subspecies of this symbol of speed and agility. Leopards are native inhabitants of areas ranging from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, to China and eastern Russia. They’ve adapted to many landforms, from forests to jungles, wetlands to mangroves and mountains. Leopards are nocturnal solitary creatures and range 20 to 30 square kilometers of home territory.

Their diet varies according to the region. Leopards are known to eat rodents, rabbits, gazelles, wild boars, antelopes and deer. To keep healthy, a leopard needs to consume one animal the size of a 50?60 kilogram impala every week.

It’s tough work. Their potential prey know the score and live in constant vigilance. They are skilled at hiding or running away when danger nears. And some can run far. Gazelles and impalas are not just fast but also have good stamina, so hunting them is hardly an easy feat even for the agile leopards. Moreover, there are many animals that are natural enemies of the leopard. Tigers and lions present constant threats, and hyenas and African wild dogs, which operate in packs, often snatch food from the leopards.

Since finding food in the wild is becoming more and more challenging, leopards have resorted to another measure to survive. They have come to learn that it is easy to prey on domestic livestock such as cows, lambs and goats.

Leopards have often been able to find a stable source of food by turning on livestock, but it has come at a cost. Throughout agrarian history humans killed to protect their valuable animals and they aggressively hunted leopards down.

It doesn’t help that leopards, by nature, do not stop attacking once engaged and often kill people. There are scattered records of human casualties by leopards. In the 1850s, according to one set of records, leopards killed some 200 people in India. And between 1982 and 1989 there were 170 reports of attacks by leopards against humans.

Their perception as a violent species has made leopards an object of caution and a prime game. As a result, the number of leopards is rapidly dwindling.

But there is one thing humans do like about leopards. Since ancient times, leopards have been hunted for their skin. Especially in the 1960s, as demand for leopard skin rose globally, over 50,000 were illegally captured. The United States imported some 10,000 pieces of leopard skin over several years. The leopard is one of the subspecies protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which bans international trade of wild animals for commercial purposes.

While most countries prohibit capture of the animal, leopards are still illegally hunted in some countries. Leopards in Asia are captured largely for their use in traditional medicine. For all these reasons, the decline of the leopards is expected to worsen. If this results in extinction, a great animal will be lost to all. They may already be lost to Koreans. The leopard captured on Mount Jiri in 1963 was the last seen in Korea, and no trace of any more has been found. Like Hemingway’s leopard on Kilimanjaro in Africa some 5,638 meters (some 19,000 feet) above sea level, the Korean leopard might soon be just a legend to future generations.


The writer is a professor of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Shin Nam-sik



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