The black leopard, which belongs to the same species as the spotted Indochinese leopard, is critically endangered worldwide, and while Thailand’s Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary is one of its few remaining habitats, there are only about 100 surviving in the area.
Earlier this week, Italian-Thai Development president Premchai Karnasuta was arrested with three companions in the wildlife sanctuary, allegedly in possession of hunting rifles - and the carcass of a black leopard.
The species information has been updated on the Facebook page Sunshine Sketcher, which is managed by Petch Manopawitr, deputy director and Thailand programme coordinator of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Southeast Asia.
Worldwide, it is estimated that the number of Indochinese leopards in the wild is between 900 and 2,500, including the black leopards, whose colour results from a gene mutation affecting their hair and melanin.
The species’ habitat has been reduced to 2.4 per cent of its historical range, according to a 2016 research article “Endangered leopards: Range collapse of the Indochinese leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri) in Southeast Asia” published in the journal Biological Conservation.
The leopard, which was once indigenous across Southeast Asia, is believed to have gone extinct in Laos and Vietnam, while in parts of Cambodia and southern China, poaching has reduced the population to near-extinction levels.
Thailand and neighbours Myanmar and Malaysia provide the last remaining habitats in which the cats can reproduce in viable populations.
Thailand’s Western Forest Complex, including the 4-million-rai (640,000-hectare) World Heritage site Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuaries, is one prime area where it is hoped that the species can be conserved, with the population estimated to be between 100 and 130.
Poaching is the most serious threat to the species, followed by declining populations of its natural prey as well as damage to its habitat and disease.
Research has stated that the species should be listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as being endangered.
Petch told the Nation that Thung Yai was clearly critical habitat for the animal.
The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry should expedite the investigation into the recent killing, which could affect the country’s image and perceptions about law enforcement, as the case had made headlines worldwide, he added.
“This case will be a turning point for good or for bad,” Petch said. “If the wrongdoers elude justice, officials could lose morale, and their efforts to try to protect the forest would become meaningless.”