The world’s rarest big cats have become ever-so-slightly less rare over the past decade. According to a census released this week, there are now at least 57 Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis) in Russia. That may not seem like a lot but the subspecies only had about 30 cats there in 2007, so this number represents nearly a doubling of the population.

Now, you’d think that counting 57 big cats wouldn’t be all that hard. The thing is, these leopards are scattered across more than 36,000 hectares. To conduct this census scientists used camera traps to collect an amazing 10,000 photographs within the Land of the Leopard National Park, which encompasses most of the Amur leopards’ habitat and all of their breeding territory. Each leopard has a unique pattern of spots, so the cats could be individually identified in the resulting photos.

To what do we owe this much-needed leopard population boom? The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which announced the results of the census, credited the establishment of the long-delayed national park in 2012 that banned pretty much all human activity within 12,000 hectares of prime leopard habitat. This allowed the park to become “the main organizational force for leopard protection and research,” according to Yury Darman, head of WWF-Russia’s Amur branch and a member of the supervisory board of the Amur Leopard Center.

The Amur leopard still has a long, long way to go before it can be considered recovered, but this is still a good sign. Conservationists also say it shows what people can achieve when they set out to save a species. “Such a strong rebound in Amur leopard numbers is further proof that even the most critically endangered big cats can recover if we protect their habitat and work together on conservation efforts” said Barney Long, who leads Asian species conservation for WWF.

The next big step in Amur leopard conservation will hopefully address the additional eight to 12 big cats that live in neighboring China. Conservation groups including the WWF have pushed for the establishment of a Sino-Russian nature reserve that would allow the big cats and other wildlife to freely migrate across the borders between the two countries, allowing for greater genetic diversity and dispersal of young adult leopards. If that plan ever becomes a reality, then the Amur leopard population may truly begin to recover.

Photos © WWF-Russia / ISUNR. Used with permission