The status of the Endangered Persian leopard in Bamu National Park, Iran

Arash Ghoddousi coordinates the Persian Leopard Project of the Plan for the Land Society in Iran, where he has been carrying out research on threatened mammals and their conservation needs since 2005. He is a member of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. Amirhossein Hamidi is a research associate of the Persian Leopard Project and involved in wildlife management and community-based conservation of large carnivores in Iran. Taher Ghadirian and Delaram Ashayeri are involved in several research projects on the Asiatic cheetah and Persian leopard. Igor Khorozyan carries out research on the Persian leopard and its conservation in Armenia.

Their article "The status of the Endangered Persian leopard Panthera pardus saxicolor in Bamu National Park, Iran" was first published in Oryx 44 (4) of October 2010.

Excerpts of their findings and photographs are by courtesy of the Persian Leopard Project, Plan for the Land Society.

The 486 km2 Bamu National Park is in Fars Province, north-east of Shiraz. Established in 1967 and upgraded to National Park in 1970, it encompasses three parallel mountain ridges extending in an east-west direction and the hilly plains between. Topographically Bamu is confined to the northern macro-slope of the Zagros Mountains. Elevations are 1,600—2,700 m. Climate is semi-arid temperate and continental. Mean annual precipitation and temperature are 400 mm and 16oC, respectively. The general vegetation type is arid scrubland dominated by almonds and thorns.

The western part of Bamu is separated by the Isfahan–Shiraz highway and its large mammalian fauna has been depleted by poaching. Only the eastern part (356 km2) is effectively protected. The leopard prey species in eastern Bamu are wild sheep, bezoar goat, wild boar, Indian porcupine and Cape hare; all are relatively common. The goitered gazelle is confined to the 60-km2 Chahmahaky Plain.

Camera-trapping was carried out in eastern Bamu during 28 September — 20 October, 2—23 November 2007, 19 December 2007 — 11 January 2008, 4—24 February and 25 February — 17 March 2008 for a total of 106 days, using passive camera-traps.

To maximize capture probabilities over the largest possible area, camera-traps were set up along established leopard trails on ridge tops and in valleys as evenly and closely as possible so as to capture all leopards. The spacing between camera-traps was 2–2.5 km, which corresponds to the diameter of the smallest leopard home range. Cameras were mounted at c. 40 cm above the ground on posts made of flat stones and sometimes on trees. Each camera-trap station consisted of 2 camera-traps placed on the opposite sides of a trail so as to photograph both flanks of leopards. The camera-traps were set for 24-hour operation, two photographs per sensing, and with a 1-minute delay between subsequent photographs.

The circle on the inset indicates the location of Bamu National Park in southern Iran.

For convenience the area was divided into five topographically distinct areas and these were camera-trapped sequentially. White circles are the stations with captures of leopards with individual IDs, and black circles are the stations without captures.

The adult female "Media" is resident in central Bamu.

Photo-captured animals were sexed from external genitalia (males), presence of cubs (females) and general appearance (much larger body size, plump muzzle, wider chest and front limbs in males). Individuals were recognized from unique spot and rosette patterns on flanks and limbs.

The total sampling effort of 1,012 trap-nights yielded 31 independent leopard pictures, resulting in a relative abundance index of 3.06 captures per 100 trap-nights. We identified seven individual leopards across the 21 sampling occasions: one adult male, one subadult male, one adult female with cub, two adult females and one subadult female.

Sampling efforts in each of the five areas differed significantly but this variation did not affect the numbers of individuals captured or the numbers of independent leopard photographs obtained in each area.

Average capture probability for individual leopards in a sampling occasion was 0.21. The effective sampled area was 321.12 km2 and thus the leopard density was 1.87 ± SE 0.07 individuals per 100 km2. This density was attained at a minimum sampling effort of 400 trap-nights, minimum sampling efficiency of seven independent pictures and a minimum study area of 150 km2. Sampling effort, sampling efficiency and study area were uncorrelated.

Visitation rates ranged from a minimum of 0.01 visits per day in Area 1 to a maximum of 0.05 visits per day in Area 3 and the rates in Areas 2, 4 and 5 were 0.02 visits per day. Visitation rates were not correlated with the numbers of individual leopards camera-trapped in the areas.

Our results indicate there are seven leopards in Bamu National Park. In the late 1970s their number was estimated to be 15–20. Whether these figures indicate a population decline cannot be ascertained as the two studies used different methodologies.

The wide-ranging adult male "Cyrus" had a much higher chance of being photographed than his conspecifics.

Poaching and habitat fragmentation are threats to the existence of leopards in Bamu. Although this National Park is well-protected, with numerous and capable game wardens (46 covering the 356.1 km2), occasional cases of poaching still occur. Rapid industrial and agricultural development beyond its boundaries makes Bamu an isolated island surrounded by the Isfahan – Shiraz highway and a refinery to the west, Shiraz city and its suburbs to the south, and agricultural lands to the north and east. Habitats in Bamu are affected by illegal grazing in the north-east and unregulated local tourism along the Park edge. Such intensive fragmentation and encroachment limits space and dispersal routes for leopards in Bamu.
We detected spatial segregation of individual leopards in relation to human factors. The subadult male was photo-captured only in south-western Bamu, which is the part of Bamu most fragmented by industrial barriers. The subadult female and an adult female were photo-captured in the south-east close to agricultural lands. The adult male and most of the adult females shared the central part of Bamu, least affected by human pressures.

 

The subadult female "Kania" lives in Bamu's southeast.

Leopard conservation measures in Bamu, partly already underway, need to focus on mitigation of the effects of habitat fragmentation and degradation, and anti-poaching activities and awareness-raising.
The Persian leopard project in Bamu is now focused on capacity building and educational programmes for villagers and farmers around the National Park. In spring 2009, with the collaboration of governmental organizations and international funders, 1,400 students in 14 villages around Bamu were educated on the importance of the leopard and the National Park. Research priorities in Bamu are a detailed study of the species’ spatial distribution and a radio telemetry study of possible connections to other populations.