Inbreeding and the health and reproductive issues that come with are causing leopards to be more vulnerable to extinction the study found

By Kelli Bender
June 15, 2020 04:36 PM

A new study from Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, has found that the leopard is now considered vulnerable to extinction due to the effects of habitat fragmentation, human exploitation, and poaching.

Aside from the obvious effects that these factors have on the leopard population, they are also affecting the overall genetic diversity of the world's leopards.

For the past 15 years, Panthera's scientists and researchers have been comparing genetic diversity in a protected South African leopard population versus one where 50% of deaths were caused by humans. This study has revealed the "exploited population where male leopards were killed off, young males did not disperse as is natural, and instead bred with and established home ranges overlapping with sisters, mothers, and aunts," Panthera said in a statement.

This inbreeding is concerning for an already threatened species because it can lead to severe health and reproductive issues, including sterility, reports The Conversation, where Panthera's scientists summarized their findings.

The study found that even in over-exploited leopard populations that are starting to rebound, inbreeding can still negatively affect the populations 10 years after recovery.

"We emphasize that even 'recovering' populations still carry the inbreeding 'scars' of historical exploitation. While reduced genetic diversity exposes populations to the challenges of future disturbances, including disease outbreak, habitat loss, and climate change," the study's scientists shared in their The Conversation article.

In an effort to combat the effects of inbreeding and the human exploitation of leopards, the study's scientists are asking conservationists to give more attention to the disappearance of leopards, which can be easy to overlook due to big cats' "elusive" nature. The group also suggests "promoting movement between reserves to encourage gene flow," which will require "wildlife corridors" through transformed lands.

"Left unregulated, the unsustainable exploitation of leopards will have severe ecological and evolutionary costs," the scientists warned.