Jan Kamler's research on the Indochinese leopard has taken him from the Cambodian Killing Fields to the remote monasteries of the Bhutanese Himalayas. He's hiked through areas bursting with landmines, and he once stayed in a Laotian ranger station where a ranger shot up the roof over fears of being attacked by a mythical Big Foot-like creature known as an Orang Pendek.
And yet, after years of tracking, Kamler has never seen an Indochinese leopard in the wild.
Little is known about Southeast Asian leopard populations, which Kamler says are declining dramatically due to poachers who sell parts of the speckled cats on the traditional Chinese medicine market as substitutes for tiger parts. Now, leopards are disappearing in some areas almost as quickly as he can track them. Meanwhile, many conservationists outside Cambodia seem clueless. "Nobody knows that this range collapse has occurred," says Kamler, the Southeast Asia leopard program coordinator for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization.*
Soon they will. Leopards are known to be hurting globally, having lost three-fourths of their historic territory according to a recent worldwide study. But the situation in Cambodia is even more urgent: Leopards occupy just 8 percent of their historical range in Cambodia, Kamler and colleagues reported this week in a study that appeared online in the journal Biological Conservation. Unless something is done, the animals could become regionally extinct as soon as 2018.
Kamler's work tracking vanishing populations of leopards stems from his work on another threatened carnivore: a small wild canine called the dhole (pronounced "dole"). In 2009, he traveled to Bhutan to work with the government's nature conservation division to estimate the number of dholes in the wild. The wild dogs had nearly gone extinct in the 1980s, due to people poisoning them out of fear that they were attacking and eating cattle (in fact, dholes ate twice as many wild pigs as they did cows, Kamler found).
But while traversing Laos, Bhutan and Cambodia—often carrying 50 pounds of gear and fighting off hornets and leeches—Kamler came many traces of leopard scat. At the same time, Panthera, the global cat conservation organization, was seeking to expand their conservation program into Southeast Asia. Thanks to his experience tracking dholes, Panthera soon hired Kamler to coordinate a new program tracking leopards in the region. "I wanted to start working more on leopards because they need more help," he says.“The goal was to get an idea of the density of these leopards in these last pockets."
Kamler used his work on dhole populations to co-author a reassessment for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which had listed the animals as endangered and expanded their protection in 2004. But getting similar protection for Asian leopards would prove more challenging.
Southeast Asia's high deforestation rate is destroying leopard habitat, while tigers are squeezing the cats out of some areas. “Tigers don’t tolerate leopards, especially where prey is low,” Kamler says. Tigers end up hogging key wilderness areas and pushing the leopards into areas where they're more easily poached, which may explain why leopards disappeared before tigers in Laos and eastern Thailand. Kamler and his colleague Susana Rostro-Garcia report in the recent study that leopard territory in Southeast Asia has shrivelled by 94 percent, with most of the decline happening in the past two decades.
Part of the problem is that the price of leopard parts is increasing, making hunters even more eager to get their hands on the animals. "The main threat to leopards and tigers is direct poaching and poaching of their prey," says Yadvendradev Jhala, a leopard researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India and a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution who was not involved in Kamler's research. "Until this is addressed, no large carnivore can survive in Cambodia and some other Southeast Asian countries."
In the case of Cambodia, these threatened cats may have only a few lives left. New poaching techniques used in the Killing Fields area include surrounding waterholes with electric fences powered by a car battery, which fry everything that comes in looking for a drink, Kamler says. Traditional trapping methods are also devastating, and include makeshift electric fences or "blanket snaring," which involves setting up hundreds of small snares that will capture any animals moving through an area.
“Snaring is the biggest threat to mammal conservation in Indochina, and current law enforcement efforts and legislative penalties in Cambodia are insufficient to act as effective deterrent on snaring,” said Thomas Gray, director of science at the Wildlife Alliance, over email. In 2011, Gray conducted a survey of leopards in Cambodia for the World Wide Fund for Nature in The Journal of Wildlife Management.
Gray agrees with Kamler’s assessment that leopards in that country are on the brink of extinction due to snaring—both deliberate and as accidental by-catch—and says that governmental action should be taken. “There are opportunities for leopard, and indeed tiger, restoration in Cambodia—there is still extensive forest and the ungulate prey base remains relatively healthy in both the Eastern Plains and Cardamom Mountain Landscapes,” he said in his email. “But effective action against snaring, coming from the highest levels of government, is needed.”
Right now, Kamler is rushing to write an assessment to the IUCN recommending that the organization lists the subspecies as either endangered or critically endangered; they are currently listed as vulnerable. He hopes such a listing will result in higher penalties for poaching, while the publicity will improve conservation funding to protect the few leopard populations still around. But better protection is only a temporary fix.
In the long-term, the government needs to enforce prohibitions on the use of tiger and leopard parts in traditional medicine, Kamler says. If not, the chance of spotting these spotted cats will soon be even smaller than it is today.
*Editor's note, August 8, 2016: This article originally stated that leopard territory in Cambodia had decreased by 94 percent; actually, it has decreased by 94 percent in all of Southeast Asia. Additionally, Jan Kamler is with the wild cat conservation group Panthera, not Oxford University.