The World’s Rarest Cats: Growing Up

There is estimated to be about 30 Amur leopards left in the wild.

It’s been over three months since our trio of Amur leopard siblings debuted (watch the video) on Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. Personally it has been very rewarding to work with these cats, both because of their extreme rarity and because at this young age they are always very engaging!

With an estimated wild population of only 30 animals, the Amur leopard is literally on the razor’s edge of extinction. For comparison, our beloved and also endangered giant pandas have a wild population of approximately 1,500 individuals. The current plight of the Amur leopard makes our job of both breeding this species and raising awareness of its conservation that much more important. With hard work, it is hoped that the Amur leopard can follow in the footsteps of the California condor, a species who’s numbers were at one time equally as low but through dedicated work have now risen to become a conservation success story.

We have many reasons for hope for this species. Early this year, after urging from various conservation organizations, Russia established a new national park specifically for the purpose of protecting the Amur leopard. These rare cats have also recently been seen during camera-trap surveys in China, the first time they have been observed in China in recent history. If nothing else, viewing our youngsters’ escapades is sure to bring a smile to your face.

Zeya, the little girl, is the troublemaker of the bunch. She is most likely to start a playful tussle with one of her brothers, often using her patented “death from above” move. Primorye is the most affectionate of the group, often soliciting attention from the keepers. He’s also a bit of a goof ball and is the most likely to randomly fall off of something, with or without the help of one of his siblings. Koshka has a classical “cat attitude,” which some might consider grumpy or aloof, but he still has a playful side. During behind-the-scenes tours, he often hangs back until the antics of his siblings have the tour group totally engrossed. Then he springs forward, pounces, and hangs from the side of the exhibit for a while, just like a house cat on a screen door.

A lot of this play behavior is actually training for behaviors they would need to be successful living as adults in the wild. When the youngsters are play fighting, you may notice that they most commonly bite at each other’s necks. The neck is the most vulnerable spot on prey and a leopard’s preferred method of dispatching a future meal. You can also see them lugging around and stashing over-sized burlap bags stuffed full of hay. In the wild, a smart leopard goes to great lengths to conceal its kill, which often outweighs the leopard. Other predators such as the Amur tiger wouldn’t hesitate to steal away the meal the leopard worked so hard for.

These rambunctious felines are growing by leaps and bounds and are soon approaching the age that they would naturally disperse away from both their mother and siblings. I hope they will eventually be paired with mates to produce a next generation. Make sure to stop by and see these extraordinary cats while they are still in rare form.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Snow Leopards: Love at Second Sight?

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