Ranging across montane areas of west Asia, the endangered Persian leopard Panthera pardus saxicolor is a flagship species for biodiversity conservation in the Caucasus Eco-region. Despite recent reduction in occupancy and number within the range countries, the subspecies still exists in large areas within Iran, including the northwest which is considered the only promising source from which this leopard might recolonize its former range. In this context, we sought to elucidate the species' status and habitat requirements, and to evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas in safeguarding its long-term persistence. We report 150 locations where the Persian leopard was recorded across six provinces in the Iranian Caucasus Eco-region. These records informed a consensus species distribution modeling approach using 14 uncorrelated environmental variables (landcover, topographic, anthropogenic and climatic features) to explore the distribution of habitats suitable for the leopards. Using electrical-circuit theory we then explored connectivity between the usable habitats as revealed by this model. Unsurprisingly, our models confirmed that prey availability and the avoidance of humans were the primary influences on leopard distribution in the region. Two main landscapes were revealed to be suitable for the leopard but only 30% of their 20,026.9km2 area is officially protected. The Alborz landscape hosted the larger population nucleus and majority of breeding occurrences. Modeled connectivity revealed that persistence of the Persian leopard population in the boundary landscape and the broader Lesser Caucasus Mountains is dependent on trans-boundary movements through southern Azerbaijan. We conclude that it is a priority that international collaboration secures the Persian leopard's conservation in the wider landscape spanning the borders of Caucasian countries.
Biological Conservation – Elsevier
Published: Nov 1, 2015
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