Conservation groups are reporting better than expected news on two rare leopard species, the critically endangered Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) in Russia and the endangered snow leopard (P. uncia) in Afghanistan.

First up, the Amur leopard, of which there are fewer than 50 animals left in the wild. But those weak numbers might be ever so slightly on the rise, as new videos from a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) survey team revealed 12 leopards in an area where only seven to nine had been seen in the past four annual surveys. The footage was the result of camera traps in the Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve and Leopardoviy Federal Wildlife Refuge, both in Russia's far east. WWF used video cameras this year, which were triggered by the presence of nearby wildlife. It's the first time that video camera traps have been used to monitor this species.

"The results are pointing to a population increase of up to 50 percent within the target group in Kedrovaya Pad and Leopardoviy," Sergei Aramilev, species program coordinator at WWF Russia's Amur Branch, said in a prepared statement. "I think we can attribute this to improvements in how our reserves are managed and the long-term efforts that have gone into leopard conservation."

Here's some of the video, which shows a female and her nearly grown cub (evidence that the cats are breeding and their young are surviving).

Amur leopards lost most of their habitat to logging, farming and forest fires, and have also been heavily poached for their coats.

Hope for snow leopards

In Afghanistan the news is even better for elusive snow leopards, which have also been popular targets for poachers. Surveys by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have found what their press release calls "a surprisingly healthy population of rare snow leopards living in the mountainous reaches of northeastern Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor."

As in Russia, photo evidence of this newly discovered population was also collected through camera traps, this time with devices set by WCS-trained Afghani community rangers. It's the first time that this method has been employed to record snow leopards in that country.

"This is a wonderful discovery—it shows that there is real hope for snow leopards in Afghanistan," Peter Zahler, deputy director for WCS's Asia Program, said in a prepared statement. "Now our goal is to ensure that these magnificent animals have a secure future as a key part of Afghanistan's natural heritage."

Snow leopard population counts are hard to come by, because the animal lives in such remote regions, but estimates range from 4,500 to 7,500 animals spread across Afghanistan and 11 other nearby countries. The snow leopard was among the first animals to be protected under Afghanistan's endangered species list when it was created in 2009.

Photo: Image of a snow leopard (Panthera uncia) captured through a camera trap. Courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society