It's easy to feel like there's no good news these days when it comes to the environment. There's too little action on climate change even as scientists warn of irreversible consequences; each month for the past year has been the hottest on record; many species remain on the razor's edge of extinction. But not all the news is so grim.
The Amur leopard, the world's rarest big cat (not to mention one of the most stunning), isn't quite as close to vanishing as we thought.
According to the Far Eastern Leopard Program from the Russian Academy of Sciences, 16 "healthy looking" cubs—nearly triple the number spotted in 2014—were clocked this year by scientists. While it's unclear as to whether this is from increased breeding or better tracking methods (they now have camera traps), the results are the same: confirmation that the world's Amur leopard population is larger than previously estimated.
Back in 2011, there were only 30 known Amur leopards left in the wild after decades of hunting, poaching, and loss of habitat and prey. Today, that number is closer 80. While it's still too early to tell whether or not this is a permanent increase, the finding is encouraging.
Russia has been impressive in its efforts to save both the Amur leopard and the Siberian tiger, going so far as to build a tunnel for big cats to pass safely under a four-lane highway on the China/Russia boarder. In addition, an insurance program has been established by the Russian government, allowing up to 2 million ruble reimbursements (roughly $30,000) for farmers to not shoot big cats who kill their livestock.
In addition, (and perhaps more impressively) in 2012 Sergey Ivanov, Vladimir Putin's Chief of Staff, founded the "Land of the Leopard" National Park; a 1,100-square-mile sanctuary dedicated to saving the Amur leopard and the Siberian tiger. The move garnered much deserved praise from the Wildlife Conservation Society. These are no small measures and they seem to signal that Russia is very serious about saving these two stunning and dwindling species.
Despite all this good news and hard work, the Amur is still officially 'critically endangered'; according to a recent report, the species has lost 98% of its habitat. But while a population of 80 is still dangerously close to extinction and decades of effort are required to move the species away from the brink, this is still a very welcome start.
It's also promising that the Russian government, private stakeholders, and international organizations have been able to work together and yield positive results in just a few years' time. Conservation requires entities of all geographic sizes—nations, states, towns, and even single farmers or ranchers—to work together to sustain the environment. This is a good and unexpected example of how that can be done.