Persian leopard

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Persian leopard
Persian Leopard sitting.jpg
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Pantherinae
Genus: Panthera
P. p. tulliana
Trinomial name
Panthera pardus tulliana
(Valenciennes, 1856)
Persian leopard present range.png
Distribution of Persian leopard (in green)
  • P. p. ciscaucasica (Satunin, 1914)
  • P. p. saxicolor Pocock, 1927
  • P. p. sindica Pocock, 1930
  • P. p. dathei Zukowsky, 1964

The Persian leopard, also known as the Caucasian leopard[2] is a leopard population in the Caucasus, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Persian leopard was previously considered a distinct subspecies, Panthera pardus saxicolor or Panthera pardus ciscaucasica,[2] but is now assigned to the subspecies Panthera pardus tulliana, which also includes the Anatolian leopard in Turkey.[3] The Persian leopard is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, as the population is estimated at fewer than 871–1,290 mature individuals and considered declining.[1]

A phylogenetic analysis suggests that the Persian leopard matrilineally belongs to a monophyletic group that diverged from African and Arabian leopards in the second half of the Pleistocene.[4]


Felis tulliana was the scientific name proposed by Achille Valenciennes in 1856 who described a leopard skin and skull from the area of Smyrna in western Turkey.[5] Felis ciscaucasica was proposed by Konstantin Alekseevich Satunin in 1914 based on a leopard specimen from the Kuban region of the North Caucasus.[6] Panthera pardus saxicolor was proposed by Reginald Innes Pocock in 1927 who described leopard skins from different areas of Persia, but recognized their similarity to Caucasian leopard skins.[7] Pocock also described a single skin and two skulls from the Kirthar Mountains in Balochistan as P. p. sindica in 1930. He admitted that the skin closely resembles those of P. p. saxicolor, but are distinguishable from the typical P. p. fusca in colour.[8] It was subsumed to P. p. saxicolor based on molecular genetic analysis in 1996.[9][10]

Today, these names are considered synonyms.[11] Results of a phylogenetic analysis suggests that the Persian leopard matrilineally belongs to a monophyletic group that diverged from a group of Asian leopards in the second half of the Pleistocene.[4]


Painting of a leopard by A. N. Komarov

The Persian leopard varies in colouration; both pale and dark individuals occur in Iran.[12] Its medium body length is 158 cm (62 in), including a 192 mm (7.6 in) long skull and with a 94 cm (37 in) long tail.[13] It weighs up to 60 kg (130 lb).[14]

Biometric data collected from 25 female and male individuals in various provinces of Iran indicates average body length of 259 cm (102 in). A young male from northern Iran weighed 64 kg (141 lb).[15]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Illustration by Joseph Smit

The Persian leopard was most likely distributed over the whole Caucasus, except for steppe areas. During surveys conducted between 2001 and 2005 no leopard was recorded in the western part of the Greater Caucasus; it probably survived only at a few sites in the eastern part. The largest population survives in the Alborz and Zagros mountains of Iran.[16] The political and social changes in the former Soviet Union in 1992 caused a severe economic crisis and a weakening of formerly effective protection systems. Ranges of all wildlife were severely fragmented. The former leopard range declined enormously as leopards were persecuted and wild ungulates hunted. Inadequate baseline data and lack of monitoring programmes make it difficult to evaluate declines of mammalian prey species.[17]

As of 2008, of the estimated 871–1,290 mature leopards:[18]

The Persian leopard avoids areas with long-duration snow cover and areas that are near urban development.[20] Its habitat consists of subalpine meadows, broadleaf forests and rugged ravines from 600–3,800 m (2,000–12,500 ft) in the Greater Caucasus, and rocky slopes, mountain steppes, and sparse juniper forests in the Lesser Caucasus and Iran.[16] Only some small and isolated populations remain in the whole ecoregion. Suitable habitat in each range country is limited and most often situated in remote border areas. Local populations depend on immigration from source populations in the south, mainly in Iran.[21]


The Anatolian leopard was considered to have been native to southwestern Turkey, but it is not sure whether leopards survived in this area.[1] The first camera trap photograph of a leopard in the country was obtained in September 2013 in Trabzon Province.[22] Between 2001 and 2013, at least three leopards were killed by local people in southeastern Turkey including one in Çınar district of Diyarbakır Province.[23] In February 2008, a leopard was recorded in Bitlis Province.[24]

North Caucasus[edit]

In April 2001, an adult female was shot on the border to Kabardino-Balkaria, her two cubs captured and taken to the Novosibirsk Zoo in Russia.[11] During surveys in the Caucasus in 2007, the presence of leopards was documented. This population was estimated to comprises less than 50 individuals.[16]

In the North Caucasus, signs of leopard presence were found in the upper Andiyskoe and Avarskoye Koisu rivers in Dagestan. In Ingushetia, Ossetia, and Chechnya local people reported the presence of leopards, but no leopard is known to occur in the Western Caucasus.[21]

In 2016, three leopards were released in the Caucasus Nature Reserve in an attempt to reintroduce the species in its historical habitat.[25] Later that year, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment signed an agreement with Azerbaijan on the creation of a trans-border reserve between the Tlyaratinsky District and the Zagatala State Reserve aimed at the reintroduction of the Persian leopard in the area.[26]


A Caucasian leopard taxidermy in the Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi

Since 1954, leopards were thought to be extinct in Georgia – killed by hunters.[11] There have been several sightings of leopards around the Tbilisi area and in the Shida Kartli province to the northwest of the capital. Leopards live primarily in dense forests, although several have been spotted in the lowland plains in the southeastern region of Kakheti in 2004.[27] Leopard signs have also been found at two localities in Tusheti, the headwaters of the Andi Koysu and Assa rivers bordering Dagestan.[21]

In the winter of 2003, zoologists found footprints of a leopard in Vashlovani National Park in southeastern Georgia. Camera traps recorded one young male individual several times.[28] This individual has not been recorded again between 2009 and 2014.[29]


In Armenia, people and leopards have co-existed since early prehistoric times. By the mid-20th century leopards were relatively common in the country's mountains.[30] Between October 2000 and July 2002, tracks of 10 leopards were found in an area of 780 km2 (300 sq mi) in the rugged and cliffy terrain of Khosrov State Reserve, located southeast of Yerevan on the southwestern slopes of the Gegham mountains.[31][32] Leopards were known to live on the Meghri Ridge in the extreme south of Armenia, where only one individual was camera trapped between August 2006 and April 2007, and no signs of other leopards were found during track surveys conducted over an area of 296.9 km2 (114.6 sq mi). The local prey base could support 4–10 individuals, but poaching and disturbance caused by livestock breeding, gathering of edible plants and mushrooms, deforestation and human-induced wild fires were so high that they exceed the tolerance limits of leopards.[33] During surveys in 2013–2014, camera traps recorded leopards in 24 locations in southern Armenia, of which 14 are located in the Zangezur Mountains.[29] This trans-boundary mountain range provides important breeding habitat for leopards in the Lesser Caucasus.[34]

The leopard protection program is implemented by the Ministry of Nature Protection of Armenia in cooperation with WWF Armenia since 2002. It aims at increasing the population and protecting both habitat and main prey species, such as the bezoar ibex and the Armenian mouflon.[35]


In 2001, hunting leopards was banned in Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and anti-poaching activities were regularly conducted in southern Armenia since 2003. Since 2005, seven protected areas have been established in the Lesser Caucasus covering an area of 1,940 km2 (750 sq mi), and three in the Talysh Mountains with an area of 449 km2 (173 sq mi). The total protected area in the country now amounts to 4,245 km2 (1,639 sq mi).[29]

Leopards also survived in northwestern Azerbaijan in the Akhar-Bakhar section of Ilisu State Reserve in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus, but in 2007 numbers were thought to be extremely low.[21]

In March 2007 and in October 2012, an individual was photographed by a camera trap in Hirkan National Park.[36][37] This protected area in southeastern Azerbaijan is located in the Talysh Mountains, which are contiguous with the Alborz Mountains in Iran. During surveys in 2013–2014, camera traps recorded leopards in five locations in Hirkan National Park.[29] The first male leopard crossing from Hirkan National Park into Iran was documented in February 2014. It was killed in the Chubar Highlands in north-western Iran's Gilan Province by a local hunter. This incident indicates that the Talysh Mountains are an important corridor for trans-boundary movement of leopards.[38]

In September 2012, the first female leopard was photographed in Zangezur National Park close to the international border with Iran.[39] During surveys in 2013–2014, camera traps recorded leopards in seven locations in Zangezur National Park, including two different females and one male. All sites are close to the international border with Iran.[29] Five cubs were documented in two sites in the Lesser Caucasus and the Talysh Mountains.[40] Between July 2014 and June 2018, four leopards were identified in the Talysh Mountains and 11 in the trans-boundary region of Nakhchivan and southern Armenia.[41]


A leopard found dead near Zom village in the protected area of Kosalan and Shahu in 2019

In Iran, leopards were recorded in 74 of 204 protected areas.[42] They are more abundant in the northern than in the southern part of the country.[12] The Hyrcanian forests located in the north and along the Alborz mountain chain are considered as one of the most important habitats for leopards in the country. Their habitat comprises climates with temperatures ranging from −23 °C (−9 °F) to 49 °C (120 °F), but most leopards were recorded in habitats with temperatures of 13 to 18 °C (55 to 64 °F), maximum 20 days of ice cover per year and rainfall of more than 200 mm (7.9 in) per year.[43] The Central Alborz Protected Area covering more than 3,500 km2 (1,400 sq mi) is one of the largest reserves in the country where leopards roam.[44] Evidence for breeding of leopards was documented in six localities inside protected areas located in the Iranian part of the Lesser Caucasus.[34]

In Bamu National Park located northeast in Fars Province, camera trapping carried out from autumn 2007 to spring 2008 revealed seven individuals in a sampling area of 321.12 km2 (123.99 sq mi).[45]

In northeastern Iran, four leopard families with two cubs each were identified during a survey carried out from 2005 to 2008 in Sarigol National Park. A male leopard was photographed in January 2008 spraying urine on a Berberis tree; he was photographed several times until mid-February 2008 in the same area.[46] Camera trapping surveys in summer 2016 documented the presence of 52 leopards in Sarigol, Salouk and Tandooreh National Parks. These included 10 cubs in seven families, thus highlighting that the Kopet Dag and Aladagh Mountains constitute important leopard refugia in the Middle East.[47]


Leopards were sporadically recorded in northern Iraq.[48] In October 2011 and January 2012, a leopard was photographed by a camera trap on Jazhna Mountain, located in the Zagros Mountains forest steppe in Iraqi Kurdistan, northern Iraq.[49] Between 2001 and 2014, at least nine leopards were killed by local people in this region.[23]


Leopards were recorded by camera traps in the Badkhyz Nature Reserve in the country's south-west.[50] Between September 2014 and August 2016, two radio-collared leopards moved from Iran's Kopet Dag region into Turkmenistan, revealing that the leopard population in the two countries is connected.[51] In 2017, a young male leopard from Iran's Tandoureh National Park dispersed to and settled in Turkmenistan. [52] In October 2018, Iran Environment and Wildlife Watch reported that an old male Persian leopard had moved 20 km (12 mi) from Iran to Turkmenistan.[53]


In Afghanistan, the leopard is thought to inhabit the central highlands, such as the Hindu Kush and the Wakhan corridor.[54] But photographic evidence for the presence of leopards in these areas does not exist. One individual was recorded by a camera-trap in Bamyan Province in 2011. The long-lasting conflict in the country badly affected both predator and prey species, so that the national population is considered to be small and severely threatened.[55] Between 2004 and 2007, a total of 85 leopard skins were seen being offered in markets of Kabul.[56]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

The diet of the Persian leopard varies depending on habitat.[57][58] In Iran and southern Armenia, it preys foremost on ungulates such as wild goat (Capra aegagrus), mouflon (Ovis orientalis), wild boar (Sus scrofa), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa). It also preys on smaller mammals such as Indian crested porcupine (Hystrix indica) and European hare (Lepus europaeus).[19][59] It occasionally attacks livestock and herding dogs. In Iran, the presence of leopards is highly correlated with the presence of wild goat and wild sheep. An attack by a leopard on an onager (Equus hemionus) was also recorded.[60]


Ahmad Shah Qajar with a dead leopard, ca. 1900

The Persian leopard is threatened by poaching, depletion of prey base due to poaching, human disturbance such as presence of military and training of troops in border areas, habitat loss due to deforestation, fire, agricultural expansion, overgrazing, and infrastructure development.[1]

In Iran, primary threats are habitat disturbances, illegal hunting and excess of livestock in leopard habitats. Outside protected areas, leopards are unlikely to persist.[61] Droughts in wide areas of leopard habitats affected main prey species such as wild goat and wild sheep.[62] An assessment of leopard mortality in Iran revealed that 71 leopards were killed between 2007 and 2011 in 18 provinces; 70% were hunted or poisoned illegally, and 18% died in road accidents.[63] Between 2000 and 2015, 147 leopards were killed in the country. More than 60% of them died due to poaching, through poisonous bait, and were shot by rangers, trophy hunters and military forces. About 26% of them died in road accidents. More males than females were killed.[64]

In the 1980s, anti-personnel mines were deployed along the northern part of the Iran-Iraq border to deter people from entering the area. Persian leopards roaming this area are safe from poachers and efforts for industrial development, but at least two individuals are known to have stepped on mines and been killed.[65]


Panthera pardus is listed in CITES Appendix I.[1]

The Armenian Leopard Conservation Society is a youth ecological group's working initiative, which was founded to study the leopard in Armenia and in the Caucasus region. In the present day, it has become common to establish a Leopard Record Monitoring Network in the Caucasus as a significant step in the formation of leopard distribution and ecology in the region.[32]

As of 2019, Nature Iraq is mapping the habitat near the border with Iran as the first stage of a conservation project.[66]

In captivity[edit]

As of December 2011, there were 112 captive Persian leopards in zoos worldwide comprising 48 male, 50 female and five unsexed individuals less than 12 months of age within the European Endangered Species Programme.[67]

Reintroduction projects[edit]

In 2009, a Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Centre was created in Sochi National Park, where two male leopards from Turkmenistan are being kept since September 2009, and two females from Iran since May 2010. Their descendants are planned to be released into the wild in the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve.[68][69] In 2012, a pair of leopards was brought to the Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Centre from Lisbon Zoo. Two cubs were born there in July 2013. It is planned to release them into the wild after they have learned survival skills.[70]

In culture[edit]

Postage stamp of Armenia with the image of a Caucasian leopard

The year 2019 was announced as "The Year of the Caucasian Leopard" by the Ministry of Nature Protection of Armenia.[71]

See also[edit]

Leopard subspecies: African leopard  · Arabian leopard  · Anatolian leopard  · Indian leopard  · Indochinese leopard  · Javan leopard  · Sri Lankan leopard  · Amur leopard  · Panthera pardus spelaea


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