The leopard (Panthera pardus Linnaeus 1978) is one of the most widely distributed terrestrial species, with a global range of at least 80 countries across a wide variety of habitats, from rainforests to deserts. After the disappearance of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) and Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) prior to the 1970s, the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) remains as the largest cat in western Asia. Presently, it is considered “endangered” on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
Arid environments of the Middle East are typically low-productive landscapes which harbour a number of threatened large carnivores, including the leopard. Leopards range across the mountains and foothills of west Asia from Turkmenistan and Afghanistan through Iran to the Caucasus, as well as the Arabian Peninsula. A substantial proportion of their distribution across this region is spatially non-contiguous, influenced by human disturbance and extremely low annual rainfall (<200 mm per annum). Low rainfall limits leopard density through constrained primary productivity.
Outside Iran, the leopard is found in several countries, including Turkmenistan with 78–90 individuals and no more than 50 in Caucasian countries (<10–13 in Armenia, <10–13 in Azerbaijan; 3–4 in Nagorno-Karabakh, <5 in Georgia, <10 in Russian North Caucasus and <5 in Turkey). The largest Persian leopard population outside Iran is believed to exist in Afghanistan (200–300). The main stronghold of the leopard in the Middle East is Iran, with a crude national population estimate of 550 to 850 animals – comprising, therefore, some 65% of the guesstimated total number of mature individuals of this subspecies, believed to be some 871–1290 in all. It is supposed that the Iranian population supports the viability of the small leopard subpopulations in the Caucasus and, possibly, in Turkmenistan through transboundary migrations.
General mappings conducted by various authors indicate that until recently the animal was widely distributed across Iran; nevertheless, the most up to date population study confirms that the Persian leopard still has a wide range in the country, with a guesstimate for its density of 0.06 to 0.1 individuals per 100 km2. The presumed distribution of leopards in Iran extends along most mountainous and forest terrains across the country, covering an area of around 885,300 km2 (ca. 50% of the country’s land territory). Northeastern Iran is supposed to hold the highest density of the “endangered” Persian leopard, with a number of well-known habitats such as the Golestan, Sarigol, Salouk and Tandoureh national parks.
Due to its vast distribution and the variation in colour and size, several subspecies were once proposed as occurring in Iran: P. p. saxicolor (Pocock 1927), P. p. ciscaucasica (Satunin 1914), P. p. dathei (Zukowsky 1964), and P. p. sindica (Pocock 1927). However, genetic analysis has revealed that western Asian leopards other than those in the Arabian Peninsula belong to the subspecies Persian leopard P. p. saxicolor. Moreover, recent craniometric and genetic analyses give support to the proposition that the Iranian Persian leopards fall within a distinctive monophylum when compared to non-Iranian clades across the species range. Therefore, the southern population for which was proposed as the name P. p. sindica (the so-called Baluchestan leopard) is considered as a synonym for P. p. saxicolor, in fact the same subspecies as the Persian leopard.
The leopards in west Asia have been reported to select particular habitat features. In central Iran, the leopard’s main prey, Persian ibex Capra aegagrus, is the main parameter determining the suitability of a habitat for the leopard. Several studies conducted in Africa have found that female leopards tend to configure their home ranges around important resources, such as areas of prey-rich habitat, den sites, and possibly water-points. Prey abundance is the key factor determining the structure of female home ranges, whereas the availability of females is most important determinant of male home ranges.
The spatial ecology of leopards has been intensively reported from throughout their global range. Nevertheless, comparatively little is known about their socio-spatial organization and how this affects the probability of their populations persisting.
How Persian leopards range across their territories has never been studied in the wild, except for one individual monitored for six months in central Iran, during which time it covered more than 60,000 hectares. The size of a home range – the area required by a leopard to meet its ecological needs – is generally related to the density of available prey.