Monitoring Amur leopards in the Russian Far East – Interim report 2015

By 15th June 2015September 15th, 2022WCS Russia

We identified six objectives within the scope of this grant to achieve our goal of developing a yearly monitoring program for the entire Amur leopard population using a rigorous survey design for Land of the Leopard National Park. Here, we present our successes at reaching those objectives.

Objective 1: Continue to conduct camera trap activities in our long-term study area in Nezhinskoe Hunting Lease and in the northern sector of Land of the Leopard National Park.
Using a team comprised of WCS and LLNP staff, all cameras were in place and operational by early March 2015, and were collected at the end of May. However, due to difficulties of accessing some sites (in spring high waters and wet and muddy roads sometimes make travel impossible), the last trap was collected only at the start of July. In total, we had 54 pairs of camera traps (which worked an average of 106 days), for a total of 6,155 trap nights.

When placing camera traps, we selected game trails along the southern fringes of mountain plateaus or at narrow outcroppings that funnel animal movements to a specific area (thus any leopards that passed were sure to be photographed). In 2015 we set camera traps at 54 locations (5 single traps and 49 pairs) across a 792 km2 area; 34 of these were in the Nezhinskoe Sector and the remaining 20 locations were in the Northern Sector (18 pairs and 2 single traps). In total, 103 camera traps were deployed in these two sectors.

These camera traps stored a total of 300,000 photographs, of which about 10,000 were animals and birds and the remainder were empty of wildlife (and usually triggered by grass and/or trees swaying in the wind). Of the wildlife images, 740 were of leopards and 256 were of tigers. Given that any single photograph might contain an identifiable leopard or tiger—perhaps even one in the background or partially obscured—each image must be carefully scrutinized; a task that required high concentration and patience. Therefore, the process of developing a comprehensive database is still in progress.

L31, the brother of female named Lynx. He was first photographed as a cub with his mother in 2010. © WCS Russia and Land of the Leopard National Park

Objective 2: Work in conjunction with national park staff and other organizations to solidify the survey protocols and results for the entire Land of the Leopard National Park.
We have been very successful at working collaboratively with staff at Land of the Leopard National Park which includes all parties conducting camera trap work (LLNP, WCS, and the Institute for Sustainable Use of Natural Resources – a local NGO). We operate under a joint agreement for this project, with our field leader Aleksandr Rybin working on a daily basis with park employees to deploy and collect camera traps, and coordinating database management with Anya Vitkalova, park scientist (who participated in a workshop on analyzing camera trap databases organized by WCS in August, 2015, in Fort Collins, Colorado). Project PI Dr. Dale Miquelle coordinates all work with Director of the park (Tatiana Baronovskaya) and her Deputy Director for Science (Alyona Salmanova).

WCS took the lead in developing a document outlining methods for conducting camera trap surveys in the Russian Far East, and now this “protocol” was agreed upon by attendees of a camera trap workshop in 2013 organized by WCS. While this protocol has not been formally approved by the Russian government as a basis for conducting surveys (a process commonly done in Russia) all organizations using camera traps have agreed to use the document as a basis for organizing camera trap survey work in LLNP.  We have also developed protocols for managing the massive database that is being developed for LLNP. We provide copies of all photographs to Land of the Leopard National Park staff, and in turn they share photographs of tigers and leopards across the entire park.

Objective 3: Expand the network of cameras to better survey and estimate numbers of tigers in Land of the Leopard National Park.
For the second year, working collaboratively with all partners, we have been successful in putting out a comprehensive network of camera traps across the entirety of LLNP. In 2015, the total area we surveyed added an additional 18 km2 of leopard habitat as compared to the area we surveyed in 2014 (from 774 km2 to 792 km2). Although the expansion in 2015 is modest, it is approximately double the area we surveyed prior to 2014, and resulted in the highest camera trap densities (6.8 cameras per 100 km2) since 2011.

Objective 4: Continue coordinating with the park to develop a database of camera-trapped leopards and tigers for the entirety of southwest Primorye that can be used yearly to identify individuals.
Just as we are currently working on data extraction and analysis for our study area within Land of the Leopard National Park, Anya Vitkalova is also busy working on data analysis for the remainder of the camera trapping area within the park. As soon as these two databases are complete, we will merge the results to conduct a park-wide analysis, which will give us a park-wide estimate of leopard numbers (the second consecutive year this work will have been done). When completed, Aleksandr Rybin of WCS will crosscheck the database provided by LLNP to come to an agreement on the final database that will the basis of analyses to derive the yearly estimate of abundance and density for the entire LLNP.

Objective 5: Continue to reach out to Chinese partners to attempt to exchange information on individual tigers and leopards (through use of standardized camera trap databases) to explore movements of these cats across the international border.
A transboundary meeting of Chinese and Russian delegates met in spring (May 11-14, 2015) to discuss multiple topics related to transboundary management of tigers, leopards, and biodiversity in general across the border between LLNP, Hunchun Reserve, and the larger Jilin-Primorye border region in southwest Primorye. This meeting developed a number of concrete recommendations on further work, leading to the arrival of a delegation from Beijing Normal University in Vladivostok in August 2015. At this meeting, a joint agreement was derived between the university and the park to exchange information, and most importantly, to exchange databases on camera trap data of both tigers and leopards. While in Vladivostok, both teams worked together to derive an overall estimate of numbers of leopards counted on both sides of the border. A joint press release (https://leopard-land.ru/news/3399) revealed that over 80 individual leopards were identified over the past two years on both sides of the border. While this is not the same as a population estimate (which must be done over a short time frame so that mortalities, births, and emigration are not confounding effects) the results are exciting and suggest that perhaps an even larger number of leopards now exist in this meta-population. We are looking forward to working with LLNP staff now to conduct a transboundary analysis to derive a statistically solid estimate of leopard abundance across the entire range of leopards.

Objective 6: Expand our database to include data on all species to retain the potential value of camera traps as indicators of biodiversity.
A continuing problem in management of camera trap databases is the lack of a suitable system for managing the enormous amount of information that is generated with the use of camera traps. Unless a database management system is in place, the vast majority of potential information is lost in the process of shifting through photos to get to the one aspect a researcher is most interested in. Only recently have several database systems become available to manage the complexities of data generated by camera traps.
WCS Russia Program has spent the last few months investigating potential database management systems for the Russian Far East. We have so far spent time investigating three potential systems: one developed by the Colorado Fish and Game primarily for management of their camera trap data base for introduced lynx (this database and its objectives most clearly align with those of ours); a second database used for monitoring biodiversity in tropical protected areas around the world is a useful repository of information, but is a bit more difficult to use as a stand-alone desktop for protected areas not included in their monitoring program; and a number of recommendations for managing photographs have been published elsewhere that we are investigating. The program developed by Colorado Fish and Game is most promising, but there are limitations (it is not clear if it can be translated in Russia) so we continue to explore options. We hope in the near future to have a system that we can propose for all protected areas in Russia to use to monitoring wildlife diversity using camera traps.

Although this is only an interim report, we have made strong progress toward our objectives. In turn, this is increasing our understanding of Amur leopards in Russia. We set 103 camera traps out for 167 trap days over a 792 km2 area—our largest survey area to date. And, importantly, we helped facilitate a breakthrough meeting between Russian and Chinese officials to share data on leopard and tiger movements. We thank ALTA for their continued and critical support of Amur leopard conservation in Russia.