leopard population decline
The Indochinese leopard may be as threatened as the tiger Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

The Indochinese leopard is suffering from a massive population decline, fuelled by illegal poaching and destruction to its habitat. The species is now thought to have disappeared from 94% of its historical range.

Indochinese leopards are a subspecies of leopards native to south-east Asia as well as China. Like other types of leopard, it is classified as "vulnerable" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species.

Traditionally, leopards have been considered less threatened than other large felines, such as tigers.

However, a new study published in Biological Conservation points out that their situation in south-east Asia is dire and could justify a new IUCN classification – from vulnerable to endangered.

Wiped out of many countries

The scientists reviewed a total of 146 wildlife surveys which had been carried out over the last two decades. The figures they examined indicated that only between 973 to 2,503 Indochinese leopards remain in the wild – with only 409 to 1,051 of the animals progressing to breeding age.

The Indochinese leopard now occurs only in 6.2% of its historical range with its strongholds being Peninsular Malaysia and the Northern Tenasserim Forest Complex between Thailand and Malaysia. However, the big cat has been wiped out in Singapore, Laos and Vietnam. It is also now nearly extinct in Cambodia and China.

leopard population decline
Leopards are poached for their skins and other body parts such as bones and claws S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

The most common reasons for the Indochinese leopard's decline are illegal poaching and loss habitat, primarily caused by deforestation.

The animal is particularly targeted by poachers because demand for parts of their bodies as substitutes for tiger parts is increasing. While their skins have always been popular in fashion and spiritual rituals around the world, tiger and leopard bones and claws are also in demand as they constitute the main ingredients of traditional Chinese medicinal remedies.

The study emphasises the need for measures to better protect Indochinese leopards. It says a recognition of their status as "endangered" by the IUCN would be a step forward.