- Tradition has it that the Java leopard is a symbol of prosperity and a guardian of the forests, which provide people with healthy water and fresh air.
- However, this big cat species is critically endangered and has been relegated to small patches of forest scattered across the densely populated Indonesian island of Java.
- Mongabay spoke to biologist Hariyo “Beebach” Wibisono about his status and the conservation strategies that could be successful if supported by officials, citizens and donors.
Hariyo “Beebach” Wibisono examines Java leopards, the last remaining top predator on the Indonesian island of Java, which, with a land area the size of Alabama, is also home to 147 million people, including the country’s vast capital, Jakarta, plus other subways Areas.
Despite these dense urban landscapes, there are still natural forest areas on the island, some of which are still patrolled Panthera pardus melas: After the extinction of the Java tiger – last seen in 1976 in the Meru Betiri National Park – the threatened Java leopard is the only large cat still alive on the island.
To get an update on this iconic species, Mongabay interviewed Wibisono via email, who shares what is currently known and is committed to protecting the leopard: “The people who live in Java should protect the leopard to make sure that the remaining forest ecosystems are healthy for human life. Traditionally, some Javanese tribes believe that the Javanese leopard is a symbol of prosperity and guardian of the forests that provide them with healthy water and fresh air. “
His answers have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Mongabay: What is the current population estimate for wild Javan leopards?
Hariyo Wibisono: Our latest estimate was 320 (between 120 and 570) adult individuals, based on the best available site-specific density estimates extrapolated to the available forest habitats.
Mongabay: What habitat do they need and how much habitat is there left on Java?
Hariyo Wibisono: Although mainly dependent on primary and secondary forests, the Java leopard is also very adaptable to various types of human-modified land uses, including mixed agricultural land, production forests, and plantations.
Before 2000, Java had lost most of its natural forest, only 23% of the island was forested. In addition, Java had lost almost 70% of its forest between 2000 and 2017. The highest deforestation occurred between 2000 and 2013 with 65% forest loss or almost 5% per year, mainly due to the development of agriculture and infrastructure. After this period, the forest cover in Java is relatively stable with only 1% forest loss per year.
Mongabay: What are their main prey animals and are these populations increasing or decreasing?
Hariyo Wibisono: Like most big cats, Java leopard is a habitat generalist dependent on a variety of small to medium-sized species, including Java deer, barking deer, wild boar, Java green peacock, various species of primate, and flying lemur.
Mongabay: What are the causes of conflict between Javan leopards and humans?
Hariyo Wibisono: Small and isolated habitats and hard edges between habitats and people (settlements, plantations, agriculture). As a habitat generalist, the Javan Leopard is very resistant to land uses that have been modified by humans, which provide productive habitats for leopard prey. As a result, the leopard often looks for prey outside of the forest. This creates overlapping areas for human and leopard activities.
In search of wild prey, leopards often encounter and raid cattle raised by forest edge communities. Compared to tigers, the Java leopard is more cryptic and therefore rarely attacks humans. The most common conflict, therefore, is fear of local communities as leopards roam their gardens in search of prey. In this situation, the local communities often set traps to catch the leopard.
Mongabay: How many leopards are removed from their habitat each year, whether for the illegal wildlife trade or for other reasons?
Hariyo Wibisono: Approximately 3.2 and 1.3 leopards respectively per year due to conflict with humans and illicit trafficking for the past 13 years. However, a recent study found a higher estimate of six leopards per year over the past 10 years from trafficking only. Most importantly, the study also found that body parts of Javan leopards entered international illegal trade networks.
Mongabay: Given the already small population, this appears to be an unsustainable rate of deportation. Although most are sold as stuffed mounts, many are used in rituals: are these traditional rituals and do you think people know about the animals’ poor population status?
Hariyo Wibisono: I believe most of the people who live in Java are unaware of the critical status of the Java leopards, with the exception of conservation practitioners and some scholars. In fact, there are still more people who believe there are still Java tigers and so overlook the Java leopard.
I only know of one ritual in Java called Reog Ponorogo who used a tiger head and skin for the ritual, but nowadays also uses Javan leopards as a substitute as tiger parts are increasingly difficult to get.
Mongabay: What should the authorities do to help the Java leopard and what can citizens do?
Hariyo Wibisono: First of all, increasing public awareness (e.g. social media campaigns) of the mainstream of the critical status of the Java leopard, strengthening cross-sectoral partnerships and mobilizing resources (e.g. funding) from both national and international sources should be considered first international sources are the most important strategies for the government.
Implementation of these three strategies is critical to support the following main objectives: a) Strengthening the management of small and isolated habitats; b) implement a human-leopard conflict protocol; c) assess the status of the Javan leopard in unknown habitats, identify empty forests (forests with no leopards or with few leopards) and repopulate these empty forests; d) Update the existing Java Leopard Action Plan to incorporate key findings from the most recent population and viability assessment.
See Related: New Map Shows Every Forest Is Relevant In The Java Leopard Rescue
Mongabay: Roughly how many areas are left to feed, and how many of them can feed the population in the long term?
Hariyo Wibisono: Myself and my colleagues identified 29 highly isolated landscapes suitable for Javan leopards that cover less than 9% of the island of Java. Direct evidence of Java leopards was confirmed in 22 of these 29 landscapes. Only three national parks alone could support the long-term survival of the leopard, another two national parks if the adjacent suitable landscapes are included. The core area index and mean patch size of the Java leopard habitats are the lowest among any other leopard habitats in their geographic range, suggesting that the Java leopard is not given much space to live and in the long run.
Mongabay: Are these areas connected at all, or are further measures needed to create corridors between them?
Hariyo Wibisono: Most of the habitats are separate and highly isolated. The establishment of physical corridors between these habitats is very unlikely as they are too far apart and mostly separated by well-established human settlements and infrastructure. Java leopard management should follow meta-population management approaches that include repopulating empty forests, exchanging breeding individuals between subpopulations (especially breeding females), and improving existing physical connectivity wherever possible.
Mongabay: Aside from its rarity, what makes this animal special and proud among the people of Java?
Hariyo Wibisono: After the Java tiger became extinct, the Java leopard became the only top predator on the island, whose role is particularly important for the balance of the ecosystem. So from an ecological point of view, the people living on Java should conserve the leopard to ensure that the remaining forest ecosystems are healthy for human life. Traditionally, some Javanese tribes believe that the Javanese leopard is a symbol of prosperity and guardian of the forests that provide them with healthy water and fresh air.
Therefore, the extinction of the Java leopard would potentially lead to further loss of Java’s remaining forests. After all, I have always believed that Indonesian biodiversity is our national treasure trove. As an umbrella type, the Java leopard therefore represents the entire biodiversity of Java, which we must preserve for future generations.
Hariyo “Beebach” Wibisono is a biologist and director of the Sintas Indonesia Foundation.
Banner image of a Javanese leopard caught in a camera trap courtesy of Senjaya Mercusiana.
Similar hearing from Mongabay’s podcast: Hear Hariyo Wibisono talk about the status of another critically endangered Indonesian big cat, the Sumatran tiger, listen here:
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Wibisono, HT, Wahyudi, HA, Willianto, E., Pinondang, IM, Primajati, M., Liswanto, D. & Linkie, M. (2018). Identification of priority protection landscapes and measures for the critically endangered Java leopard in Indonesia: Conservation of the last large carnivore on the island of Java. PLUS ONE, 13(6), e0198369. doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0198369
Wibisono HT, Wilianto, E., Pinondang, IMR, Rahman, DA, & Chandradewi, DS (2021). Panthera pardus melas. The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species (in print).