How Do You Assess the Health of Endangered Species in the Wild?

It must feel like being abducted by aliens. First you're tranquilized and immobilized. Then you're captured, brought into strange buildings and probed in every way possible. Finally, you're quietly returned to your home and left alone, feeling dazed and confused. But if you're an endangered species, you might just be a little bit healthier than before you were taken away.

An "abduction" like this took place in Russia last week, when one of the last 30 or so wild Amur leopards was captured, examined and released as part of a huge collaborative effort to assess the health of the world's most endangered big cat.

Why the capture and release? Scientists need to know more about the critically endangered Amur leopard if they are going to be able to save the species. With less than 160 leopards left in the world (130 of them in zoos), and a population scattered over remote sections of Russia and China, it is vitally important to find out how well the last few free-living animals are doing.

So... how are they doing? Well, as you can probably imagine, they aren't exactly doing great. The exam of the captured female found evidence of a heart murmur, likely caused by inbreeding. Information gathered for other tests (still being conducted) will reveal the leopard's reproductive condition (another area which can be affected by limited genetic diversity) and if it suffers from any parasites or illnesses.

This capture and examination was a collaborative exercise between the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Biology and Soils, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London, among other groups. At least seven other organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Rhino-Tiger Fund, helped to provide funding.

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