This blog appears in the In-Depth Report Science at the Sochi Olympics

Two of the world's rarest and most vulnerable cat species have had some good news in the past few weeks.

The best of the news items covers the critically endangered Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), probably the rarest cat species on the planet, with a wild population of approximately 40 to 50 individuals. Russia, which is home to the majority of the animals, announced April 10 that it is finally establishing the long-in-the-works Land of the Leopard National Park, which will protect approximately 60 percent of the leopard's remaining habitat in the Russia. The 262,000-hectare park, located in the easternmost portion of the country, encompasses all of the leopard's known breeding areas in Russia.

The Russian government will invest $16.6 million toward developing the park, which will include protected areas for wildlife, an economic development zone and an ecotourism recreational zone. Russia has also committed an additional $1.3 million for upkeep of the park.

"Amur leopards are ... teetering on the brink of extinction," Sybille Klenzendorf, head of the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF's) species conservation program, said in a prepared release. "With the establishment of Land of the Leopard National Park, in conjunction with other conservation efforts, we can now start to focus on how to begin bringing them back."

Land of the Leopard National Park will contain portions of Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve and Leopardoviy Federal Wildlife Refuge, which are already the cats' only Russian habitats, as well as some of the territory surrounding the two parks. But creating the park is just the first step: the entire area is in need of preservation measures to ensure the long-term health of its ecosystems. In 2010 Russia's then deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov, arguing for the park, told the 14th Congress of the Russian Geographical Society that the current state of the leopard habitat is degraded and exploited; for example, there are several military facilities located within the Leopardoviy refuge. The region is also prone to wildfires made worse by poor forest management. Just last month, the Leopardoviy refuge was hit by a fire that destroyed nearly 1,500 hectares of leopard habitat. None of the cats were injured in the fire.

Russia is not the only home to Amur leopards. Approximately nine to 12 of the animals live in nearby China. The WWF says it hopes to establish a cross-border reserve territory to allow the leopards to expand their habitat and freely travel between the two countries. China has two wildlife reserves on its side of the border.

Meanwhile Russia has announced the preliminary results of a count of its Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) population: it has found that between 400 and 450 individuals of the critically endangered tiger subspecies roam there. Russia conducted its survey by counting tiger paw prints in the snow. If the count is correct, it would mean that the population has grown dramatically since 2010, when estimates put the figure as low as 250 animals. The country recently ended logging of cedar trees in the tigers' habitat, which not only directly protected the big cats, it also increased the crop of cedar nuts, which fed and helped to boost the population of wild boars, the tigers' favorite prey.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photo 1: Camera trap photo of an Amur leopard, © WWF-Russia/Institute of Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, used with permission. Photo 2: Amur tiger by Appaloosa via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons license