World's Most Endangered Big Cat Trapped and Studied

Melody Roelke of the Laboratory for Genomic Diversity, of the National Institutes of Health, is conducting a medical exam of a captured Far Eastern leopard. (Image credit: John Goodrich/Wildlife Conservation Society)

Two of the world's most endangered big cats, the Siberian tiger and the Far Eastern leopard, were recently captured and studied by an international team of biologists before being released.

With a series of snares called traplines, scientists temporarily captured the two male cats about a mile from each other in Southwest Primorski Krai in the southern Russian Far East, less than 20 miles form the Chinese border. The tiger was captured first, followed by the leopard [image] three days later.

An estimated 400 Siberian tigers remain in the wild, but the recently captured male is believed to belong to a small sub-population of about 20 individuals living in the southern Russian Far East. Only about 30 of the Far Eastern leopards are thought to remain in the wild, making it the world's most endangered big cat.

These captures "represent a milestone in our cooperative efforts to save the Far Eastern leopard and Siberian tiger from extinction," said Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Russian Program, which headed the project. "With the information gained from these animals, and others to come, we will be in a much better position to determine appropriate conservation actions."

Biologists from the Institute of Biology and Soils of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of the National Cancer Institute were also involved in the captures. The scientists ran a series of medical and genetic tests on the cats before releasing them, including the collection of sperm from the leopard to assess its reproductive capacity. The tests will help reveal whether leopards and tigers suffer from the effects of inbreeding, a common problem in small wildlife populations.

Until now, no information was available to assess the risk of disease or inbreeding in the rare cats. If inbreeding is determined to be a problem, scientists might introduce related species from other areas. The introduction would add new genetic material into the populations, as was recently done for the Florida panther using pumas from Texas.