Population dynamics of the last leopard population of eastern Indochina in the context of improved law enforcement
Rostro-García S., Kamler JF., Sollmann R., Balme G., Augustine BC., Kéry M., Crouthers R., Gray TNE., Groenenberg M., Prum S., Macdonald DW.
Poaching, a major threat to wildlife worldwide, is pushing species toward extinction. To reduce poaching pressure and combat biodiversity loss, improved law-enforcement efforts reportedly are required; the effectiveness of which can be determined through rigorous monitoring of wildlife populations, particularly of endangered large carnivores. In the Eastern Plains Landscape of Cambodia, law-enforcement efforts increased to counter the severe threats from illegal activities; however, it is unknown if these strategies are benefiting the population of the Critically Endangered Indochinese leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri), the last large felid population of eastern Indochina. We used open population spatial capture-recapture models to estimate density, survival, per-capita recruitment, and population growth rates of leopard using data from 7 camera-trap surveys conducted over 11 years (2009–2019). We found that the population (a) declined by over 82 % (from 1.5 to 0.3 leopard/100 km2), (b) had low survival probability (0.58) and low recruitment rates (males: 0.04, females: 0.24), and (c) is expected to continue declining. An additional survey in 2021 failed to detect leopard, suggesting the species now is functionally extinct, if not fully extirpated, from the landscape. Over the study period, there was a drastic increase in human activity, with a 20-fold increase in detection frequencies of humans and a 1000-fold increase in lethal-trap encounter rate. The rise in anthropogenic pressures, particularly snaring, appeared to be the primary reason for the leopard decline, indicating the last decade of management interventions was insufficient to conserve the species, which now appears to be extirpated in all of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. This has implications for leopard conservation in the wider region, notably that efforts should now focus on populations within the two remaining strongholds. Our results suggest that increases in law-enforcement efforts alone are unlikely to protect wildlife in eastern Indochina; thus, additional strategies are needed to address the region's snaring crisis, including legislative reforms, community engagement, and programs that reduce demand for wildlife meat and products. Long-term studies of remaining Indochinese leopard populations coupled with timely and effective conservation actions are needed to avoid the complete demise of this subspecies.