A new study has emphasized that leopards may not be as safe as scientists previously thought.

Researchers had previously been confident that leopard populations were stable. However a new study published in PeerJ on Wednesday has found that they are now occupying less than one-third of their historic range and are in dire need of protection from international organizations.

Leopards May Be In More Danger Than Thought

Study authors call for greater recognition of vulnerability

The authors of the study are asking for the International Union for Conservation of Nature to raise the leopard’s status from “near threatened” to “vulnerable” on the authoritative Red List. The new status could help to encourage conservation efforts, as has been the case with other species that were given more serious Red List classifications.

“Our next steps in this very moment will determine the leopard’s fate,” Andrew Jacobson, the study’s lead author, told National Geographic. “The international conservation community must double down in support of initiatives protecting the species.”

According to a report in National Geographic, the International Union for Conservation of Nature is expected to reclassify leopards this year. The animals were previously thought to be the most adaptable and resilient of big cats, but this latest study challenges that perception.

Leopards in greater danger than previously thought

The study is the most in-depth global investigation into leopards to date. It suggests that the animals’ geographic range, adaptability and elusiveness have combined to create the perception that leopards are not threatened in the same way as African lions or Siberian tigers.

However leopards now only occupy between 25-37% of their historic range. They once roamed across Eurasia and Africa, according to researchers. This range has diminished from 35 million square kilometers  to 8.5 million square kilometers. That is equivalent to an area twice the size of Russia being reduced to an area the size of Brazil.

Leopards maintain a strong presence in various parts of southern and eastern Africa, however populations have virtually disappeared in China, the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. The historic range of three subspecies – the Arabian leopard, the North Chinese leopard, and the Amur leopard – has now been reduced to just 2% of its peak.

Humans to blame for declining populations

The decline has been driven by human activity, according to the researchers. Destruction of habitat, the illegal trade in leopard skin and parts, the hunting of prey animals, revenge killing by farmers and trophy hunting are all to blame.

Other research has also suggested that humans are poisoning animal carcasses in an attempt to target carnivorous animals.

It is thought that reclassifying the leopard could help to restore populations. The researchers point to the example of the Arabian Onyx as proof that the approach could be beneficial.

The onyx, native to the Arabian peninsula, had almost gone extinct before it was classified on the Red List. Its inclusion led to greater awareness of the threats to the onyx and eventually allowed the animal to be reintroduced to the wild.

“It is a classic example of how data from the IUCN Red List can feed into on-the-ground conservation action,” said Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, director general of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, in 2011.

Other studies suggest that leopards are capable of surviving in landscapes dominated by humans. They do however need some remaining cover and prey, as well as favorable government policies allied with some public tolerance of their presence.