I admit it. Okay? I have a problem. I'm obsessed with photos and videos from camera traps. There, I said it.
Maybe it's because camera traps offer up a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of nature on its own, undisturbed by our species. It's a romantic notion, isn't it? Nature untouched. It's foolish to think that humans exist apart from nature; we are but one species in a massive tree of life. As in physics, so too in wildlife biology. The very act of observation necessarily perturbs the thing you're trying to observe. Perhaps we enjoy disproportionate control over the systems that govern the ebb and flow of life on earth, but I think that catching a fleeting glimpse of animal behavior in situ reminds us that it was not always that way. And life will continue long after our species is reduced to but a paragraph in the story of our planet. Animals hunt, they eat, they play, they breed. And in most cases, they don't need our help. Other species get along just fine without us, thankyouverymuch.
Of course, the truth is more complicated than that. Some species probably can't survive without some help from Homo sapiens. The Amur or Far Eastern leopard, Panthera pardus orientalis, is the world's most endangered big cat, and the only one known to be adapted to the cold, snowy environment in which it lives. There are only some thirty to fifty individuals left in the wild, and around 170 others in zoos worldwide. The wild population lives only on a tiny speck of land along the Russia-China border; deep snows prevent them from moving too far north while human activity keeps them from spreading south.
Conservationists have discussed the possibility of reintroducing the cats from within the captive population into designated areas, but a reintroduced group would just face the same threats as their wild counterparts: poaching, forest degradation (due to fires that are intentionally set to make room for farming and other purposes), and mining. For any reintroduction effort to be successful, the captive-born cats would need to be taught how to hunt and to avoid humans and tigers, and, given how small the population is, the leopards would probably need our assistance in avoiding inbreeding.
The video above is particularly exciting because it shows that, though small in size, the population of wild Amur leopards is breeding. The second individual to walk across the screen is a mature female, and she's preceded and followed by two young cubs!
This footage comes from a camera trap placed by China's Forestry Bureau of Jilin Province in the Wangqing Nature Reserve in northeast China. Together with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the World Wild Fund for Nature, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance, the Forestry Bureau is working to improve leopard habitats, to expand and improve law enforcement surrounding leopard protection, to educate governmental agencies, and to reduce human-leopard conflict by improving livestock protection techniques.
Header photo: Amur leopard in the UK's Colchester Zoo via Kevin Law/Wikimedia Commons.