Two Amur leopards, among the most endangered cats in the world, were born at the Minnesota Zoo on Tuesday. Zoo officials said the breeding efforts are a key part of the growing effort to save the Amur leopard from extinction.
The two cubs join an estimated 90 Amur leopards living in captivity in the United States. There are fewer than 40 Amur leopards left in the wild. Conservationists around the world hope to release captive-bred species into the wild within the next several years.
"This is a proud moment for us," said Tony Fischer, the Minnesota Zoo's animal collection manager. "At some point, we may be called upon to help reintroduce them back into the wild, if they can get the habitat restored and fix the problems that are occurring out there in their native range."
Amur leopards once roamed across northeastern China and the Korean Peninsula. Now they are confined to a small area along the Russia-China border, after logging, forest fires, and farming destroyed 80 percent of the cats' habitat in the 1970s and early 1980s, according to estimates by the World Wildlife Fund.
Despite the bleak numbers, conservationists are hoping to save the species from extinction. Earlier this year, Russia turned 650,000 acres of the Amur leopard's natural habitat into a national park. About 10 Amur leopards -- about one-fourth of the world's total wild population -- live in the area, according to estimates from conservationists who use motion-sensor-enabled cameras to capture images of the elusive cats.
In another positive sign, the number of Amur leopards in a nearby national park on the Chinese side of the border appears to be increasing, said Sybille Klenzendorf, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund's Species Conservation Program.
The Russia-China border area "really is providing a great leaping point for expanding the population again," Klenzendorf said.
FROM THE ZOO TO THE WILD
Within the next few years, conservationists will likely embark on a new and unprecedented effort to save the Amur leopard from extinction. Animal experts and conservationists from around the world hope to gradually introduce captive-bred Amur leopards into the wild. If successful, the leopards would be the first large cats to be reintroduced into the wild.
The Russian government is reviewing a proposal drafted by conservationists and is expected to make a decision soon on whether to allow the project to move forward, Klenzendorf said.
It's unlikely that adult Amur leopards, raised in captivity, will be released into the wild. Instead, conservationists hope to breed a new group of Amur leopards and raise them in a "semi-wild environment." Those "semi-wild" leopards will mate, and their offspring will be the ones released into their natural habitat, Klenzendorf said.
"It's just a very difficult endeavor because they are a large predator and can be very dangerous," she said. "So it has to be done very carefully and that they're not used to people -- we call it 'habituated to people' -- because then you definitely don't want to release them into a wild situation."
Conservationists will also need to make sure that the leopard's main source of food, deer and boar, are in ample supply. If the leopards have access to enough food, Klenzendorf said, the population could nearly double in a short time.
THE ROLE OF ZOOS
Any future efforts to release the animals into the wild will require a strong, genetically diverse group, said Cynthia Kreider, who oversees the North America Species Survival Plan for the Amur leopard.
Kreider acts as a kind of matchmaker for captive leopards, reviewing medical records and consulting with experts to determine the best pairs for breeding. Her newest plan includes 16 proposed matches. So far this year, three Amur leopards have been born in captivity in North America -- the two at the Minnesota Zoo this week and one at the Denver Zoo in April.
The parents of the two cubs born this week came from opposite ends of the world. The zoo received the father in 2009 from a zoo in the Czech Republic. The mother arrived two years earlier from the Audubon Nature Institute in Louisiana. Both were born in captivity. The Minnesota Zoo also has another adult female Amur leopard from a zoo in France.
"They're very valuable genetically," Kreider said. "It was a great pairing, and the cubs are definitely very valuable to the program."
Gathering Amur leopards from around the world is one thing. Convincing them to mate in captivity is another, said Fischer, of the Minnesota Zoo.
"It's not automatic, like some species," he said. "Leopards have to like one another for that short period of time."
Timing is critical. "If it's at the wrong time, they could end up being very violent and hurting each other, or even killing each other," Fischer said.
The Minnesota Zoo relies on specially designed indoor spaces divided by several doors to introduce the potential mates. The area includes doors with screens that allow the animals to view and interact with one another without actually being together, Fischer said.
Animal experts carefully monitor the leopards' behavior. If the chemistry seems right, they open the doors.
The two cubs are the first Amur leopards born at the Minnesota Zoo since 1995. Fischer said the cats will remain with their mother for several years, as they would in the wild. After that, he said the zoo will include the animals in a national breeding network and could loan the animals to other zoos.
The cubs will not be on public display for several months, but they can be viewed on the zoo's live webcam.