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Amur leopard

6

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?

12

Zoo Hospital: Leopard Youngsters

Welcome, Amur leopard kids! Here's one of the boys...

What’s furry, has 12 legs, and is one of the cutest things you’ll ever see? Our Amur leopard siblings! Two brothers and a sister entered quarantine at the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine in March. The Amur leopard is considered to be one of the most critically endangered big cats in the world, with just 35 remaining in the wild, all in the Russia’s Far East, so we were very excited about our new arrivals.

As a former large cat keeper at the Zoo, I had been hearing for years that we’ve been trying to get these amazing animals into our collection. I know the exhibit they will be moving into, and I couldn’t be happier. These kids are going to have a blast in their new digs!

...and here's the other boy.

Having worked with many leopard species, I couldn’t help but compare these Amur leopards to other cats. My first impression was that they have the extra-long tail and subtly fluffy fur of our snow leopards, the coloring of our North Chinese leopard, Jama, and the sweet face of our Persian leopard, who is no longer at the Zoo.

The yet-unnamed leopards still have some baby fuzz visible since they’re not even a year old; their first birthday will be May 14, 2012. The boys are both 67 pounds (30 kilograms) and the female is 62 pounds (28 kilograms), so even though they are young, they are already within the range of an adult’s weight. One of the males is taller and lighter and a bit more fiesty. His brother is a little shorter and a tad darker and just a sweetheart. The female is a doll and communicates with us by occasionally making an adorable squeaking sound.

I think I speak for all five hospital keepers when I say it has been an honor to care for these rare and amazing cats. I hope you will enjoy them as much as we have. And you never know, you might even see me there standing right beside you, staring up at them as they enjoy their exhibit in Big Cat Trail.

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: Picky Beaver.

Update: The trio is now on exhibit for all to admire!