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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Big Cats in Far East Face Threat

KEDROVAYA PAD RESERVE, Far East - The footprint in the wet, black soil was fresh, from the night before. The game warden bent down, brushed the imprint with his fingers and squinted, trying to judge how old the animal was, and its sex.

The mark in the mud, near a stream where cold water rushed over smooth brown stones on its way to the Sea of Japan, was yet another defiant sign of life from Pynthera pardus orientalis, the Amur or Far Eastern leopard.

As few as 30 of the spotted predators may still survive today in the wild. It is the most endangered of a score of subspecies of Asian leopard, believed by biologists to be the big cat closest to extinction. and it is a living - or dying - metaphor for the state of many types of wildlife in post-Communist Russia.

Market economics and an end to the fortress mentality of Soviet days have heightened the threat to the survival of the Amur leopard.

"It's the most catastrophic situation of an animal that I know", Viktor Korkishko, 39, the game warden and biologist who has devoted most of his adult life to the Amur leopard, said after a day spent hiking the trails of this nature preserve in Russia's Maritime Territory.

Another great predator native to Russia's Far East, Panthera tigris altaica, or the Ussuri tiger, the biggest and most powerful of the world's felines, is in perilous straits as well. and experts worldwide are marshaling their efforts to help.

The Ussuri Tiger Project, run by the University of Idaho's Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute, was formed five years ago and has now taken up the cause of the leopard.

"Its numbers are even fewer, which is why we're more worried about it", said Howard Quigley, incoming director of the institute.

Economics is a big part of the problem, compounded by the freewheeling anarchy that has accompanied the end of state-run socialism.

"These days, a man who kills a tiger can tell himself, 'I'll live well for a couple of years, along with my family'", said Anatoly Lebedev, deputy chairman of a local ecological commission.

He estimates that the Ussuri tiger population has been reduced to a scant 250 to 300 and that last winter alone, no fewer than 50 animals were slain.

In a bitter paradox, the cats were safer in totalitarian times, when the borders of this region shared by the People's Republic of China were sealed. Now, Chinese merchants throng the markets of Vladivostok, a one-hour trip by hydrofoil across the Amur Gulf from the leopard habitat centered on Kedrovaya Pad.

There, anything can be bought and sold. Among Chinese, the tiger's bones, whiskers, virtually every part of an animal that can attain 380 kilograms - are prized ingredients for stimulants, aphrodisiacs and other folk remedies.

Not surprisingly, the Ussuri tiger is believed to be extinct in China.

"The Chinese kill everything on their side of the border", Lebedev said.

The Amur leopard is also prized in the Orient for its supposed healing powers, and killing one can mean an illicit windfall for a hunter. An advertisement in a Vladivostok newspaper recently offered one of the animal's skins for sale for $3, 000, or about 3 million rubles.

"Massive poaching started about two years ago", Lebedev said in his Vladivostok office. "It was due to economic chaos, to the sudden eruption of freedom into our lives".

It seems like a practical joke of nature that the world's largest tiger and its northernmost subspecies of leopard came to dwell in the forests of Russia's Far East.

The landscape here is unique, a bizarre blend of Siberia and the sub-tropics and the closest Russia gets to a rain forest.

In this verdant, hilly country less than 25 kilometers from the Chinese border, tropical-size Maack's swallow-tail and Schrenck's Purple Emperor butterflies flit; twisted Amazon-like liana vines hang from black firs, oaks, ash and cedar; purple rhododendron bloom, and the ground under the trees is blanketed with ostrich-feather ferns.

In winter, however, the temperature drops to a very Russian 30 degrees below zero. The birds that summer here migrate to Borneo or the Philippines, and the snow falls thick.

This patch of 111 square kilometers of protected land is administered by the Far Eastern Department of Russia's Academy of Sciences.

Here, a score of game wardens, other employees and their families live in rustic one-story wooden cottages. They must now get by on a budget that has fallen to $200 a month.

"With the disastrous conditions that the Maritime Territory is in, the animals suffer first", Korkishko said.

The Amur leopard, which reaches about 90 pounds in weight and needs to eat about a tenth of that in meat daily to survive, is a classic case of what wildlife biologists call a "vestigial population", with an alarmingly shrinking gene pool.

Only 29 to 31 of the Amur leopards are now left in Russia, down from 100 to 150 several years ago, Korkishko said. Information is scant about how many, if any, survive in North Korea and China, but the total is not expected to top 50.

In the face of official indifference and general economic ruin, Korkishko has been enlisting support overseas for a plan that he thinks might give the endangered leopard some chance of survival.

If the scheme succeeds, the Russian Far East will get a major tourist complex and conference center with the predator as the centerpiece.

He wants to mate zoo animals with their cousins from the wild in an outdoor "leopard nursery" with breeding "pens" of 1, 200 to 1, 400 acres rich in prey animals such as deer, badger, raccoon, dog and Manchurian hare. Offspring will be used to "refresh the blood" of captive animals or be released into the wild.

Korkishko also wants to expand the habitat since Kedrovaya Pad, the smallest of the Maritime Territory's half-dozen nature reserves, can accommodate only a limited number of leopards. He is trying to increase the protected habitat to include a valley to the northwest.