On International Leopard Day, these shy big cats need us to end their commercial exploitation

Secretive and almost ghostlike, leopards are seldom seen or heard, but are the widest-ranging of the big cats, having historically thrived throughout much of Africa and Asia.

Powerful, intelligent and adaptive, these remarkable cats manage to persist in habitats spanning deserts to tropical rainforests, across grasslands, high mountains, wetlands and the snow-filled expanses of the Russian Far East. Particularly in South Asia, they have managed to survive in close proximity to human beings, nowhere being as astonishing an example as the high-density population of leopards in the heart of Mumbai, one of the world’s busiest megalopolises.

Notwithstanding their adaptability, leopard populations are in decline globally, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature having downgraded their conservation status from Near Threatened to Vulnerable in 2016 – and anticipating future population declines.



Across their range, leopards are threatened by habitat destruction, loss of prey, conflict with humans and poaching for their body parts. Five of the Asian sub-species are categorised as Endangered or worse, with the Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr), Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis) and Indo-Chinese leopard (P. p. delacouri) assessed as Critically Endangered. In South-East Asia, the Indo-Chinese leopard is estimated to have disappeared from more than 80 per cent of its range since 2008, with extinctions occurring in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Targeted poaching for their body parts is considered the main driver for the collapse of South-East Asia’s leopard population.

Seizure data indicates that leopards are the most poached and illegally traded of the big cat species. In the 10-year period from 2014-23, reported incidents point to a minimum of 1,935 leopards seized in trade. More than 150 leopards have been seized in trade in each of these years, with over 200 being reported to be seized in 2018, 2020 and 2021, indicating a consistent and possibly increasing level of illegal trade.

Of note are two large seizures reported in Thailand, one in 2023 involving the seizure of 296 leopard parts and another in 2020 of more than 800 pieces of leopard skin.

Leopard skins found on sale (c) EIA

India accounts for a lion’s share (more than 50 per cent) of reported seizures during these years, reflecting both the country’s relatively large leopard population as well as comparatively high levels of enforcement. Acknowledging that there may be biases in the reporting and documenting of seizure data, it does appear that, in comparison, South-East Asia’s leopards have disappeared in silence from large parts of their range, with little evidence of action to stop their decline.

Enforcement action is predicated on appropriate legislation to protect the species. By way of listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), international commercial trade of leopards has been prohibited since 1975. Over the years, through CITES, the global community has recommended strong measures to be taken by countries to stop the decline of leopards. These measures include the closure of legal domestic markets for leopards which are contributing to poaching and illegal trade, the removal of references to parts and derivatives of leopards from official pharmacopeia and working with traditional medicine communities and industries to gradually reduce and eventually eliminate the use of leopard parts and derivatives.

Although most national legislation offers leopards some level of protection, the implementation of CITES recommendations by key countries leaves much to be desired. The CITES Secretariat warned of the trade threats to leopards in 1999, but this warning largely fell on deaf ears. In 2020, the CITES Parties urged more “serious consideration” of the threats to leopards, but in the absence of any response, the CITES Standing Committee in 2023 called on Parties to report on poaching, seizures and conservation measures by February 2025.

Leopard skulls on sale in China (c) EIA

Leopards are targeted for almost all parts of their body, but particularly for their bones and skins. Although other markets for leopard parts exist, demand in China is one of the primary drivers for the global illegal trade of leopards.

In 1993, the Chinese Ministry of Health approved the use of leopard bone as a substitute for tiger bone in traditional Chinese medicines (TCM). China’s Wildlife Protection Law allows for permits to be issued for commercial trade of leopards and a “special marking” scheme is operated to authorise legal trade in products containing the species.

In 2006, China issued regulations ordering that only existing stocks of leopard bone could be used for TCM and that no new stocks could be used. No information on the scale of those stocks is publicly available.

In 2014, the Government approved a brand of leopard bone wine as “intangible cultural heritage” and in 2018 it approved the sale of 1,230.5kg of leopard bone to a company manufacturing it.

Last year, EIA documented at least 38 TCM products online which displayed permit numbers issued by the National Medical Products Administration of China.

Given the international commercial trade ban since 1975, China’s accession to CITES in 1981 and the small leopard population within China, it is unclear how procurement for licensed leopard products is being met through legal supplies. When viewed in light of the high global levels of poaching and illegal trade of the species, it seems clear that China’s regulations for leopards do not satisfy CITES recommendations for the species.

What makes this situation worse is that, as we documented last year in Investing in Extinction, at least 62 banks and financial institutions based in Australia, Canada, the EU, Japan, Switzerland, the UK and the USA – many of which are household names such as Vanguard, BlackRock, HSBC and Goldman Sachs – were invested in two of the TCM conglomerates producing leopard bone products.

Through collaboration with World Animal Protection, we accessed the shareholding data of the relevant companies as of April 2024. While the composition of the shareholding has changed, with some of the named investors in our report no longer holding shares, the overall picture has not improved. In fact, as of last month, more than 100 financial institutions and banks based outside China were invested in two of the TCM conglomerates producing leopard bone products.

Like so many other threatened species, leopards face an uphill battle for their long-term survival. Anthropogenic threats in the form of habitat destruction, often leading to negative human-leopard interactions, may increase and range country governments, the private sector and donors have much to do to address them.

What should be simpler to address is the continued exploitation of the species for its body parts. As a first step, this requires an unambiguous message from all stakeholders, particularly the governments of consumer states, that commercial trade of their parts and products will no longer be allowed or supported.

As a species, leopards are adaptable and built to endure – we should be giving them the best chance of doing so.