Nat Geo Wild will screen a new documentary charting the search for an animal dubbed “the world’s most-wanted leopard.“
The 60-minute film is set to air Dec. 8 in the U.S. and UK, and between Dec. 2 and Dec. 26 internationally as part of the Mission Critical strand, which features stories of endangered animals on the planet.
The World’s Most Wanted Leopard follows wildlife photographer and filmmaker Adrian Steirn and his team as they set out across Azerbaijan in their quest to capture footage of the Caucasian Leopard, Europe’s last remaining indigenous leopard species and the largest sub-species of leopard in the world. To date, the cat has never been substantively documented in the wild on film, with only limited still images and partial sightings via video camera traps in existence from other Caucasus regions.
Azerbaijan’s leopard population, which is officially denoted as critically endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global monitoring organization, in its Red List of Threatened Species, has never previously been filmed.
Fronted by Steirn and produced by his South African-based Ginkgo Agency, the film captures the hunt through Azerbaijan’s sub-tropical semi-desert heat, as well as freezing winters, as the team persevere in their mission to track down and film the enigmatic animal in the isolated Hirkan National Park. Assisted by specialist support from the Babakhan Rakhmanov, known locally as the Leopard Man, and Dr. Victor Lukarevsky, a renowned Russian big cat specialist (and featured on BBC’s Operation Snow Tiger), the team used a network of cameras, planted in carefully targeted locations, to keep watch over the huge territory inhabited by the elusive animal.
The film documents their journey to capture documentary evidence and prove the existence of the species in the region with the first-known video footage and clear still images.
“Making this film has been a truly unique and incredible journey in search of a majestic creature. It was a privilege to be granted access to the depths of the incredible Azerbaijan mountains with the support of local environmental bodies and trackers in an attempt to capture footage of this rare sub-species of leopard. The team and I were tested both emotionally and physically but we were thrilled with what we managed to accomplish,” said Steirn in a statement.
“To know that the future of the Caucasian Leopard is now high on the agenda of key players in the region as a result of our film is extremely rewarding,” he added.
The unprecedented footage captured for the documentary has assisted in galvanizing key conservation organizations in wider efforts to restore the Caucasian Leopard population across the region. These new initiatives follow the successful program earlier this year, in the Caucasus biosphere reserve of Russia’s Sochi National Park, which saw the breeding and subsequent release into the wild of three Caucasian Leopard cubs, which was implemented by the Caucasus Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Centre.
In addition, based on the evidence gathered throughout this project, the government of Azerbaijan has committed to explore future strategies to protect the country’s Caucasian Leopard population, and earlier this year announced plans with Russia to create a cross-border reserve for the restoration of a leopard population in the Caucasus region in coming years. The reserve is proposed to become part of Zagatala State Nature Reserve (Azerbaijan) and Federal Reserve Tlyaratinsky (Republic of Dagestan).