Disappearing Leopards

By Chris Moore. Published April 25, 2011.

They’re one of the rarest big cats in the world and, in fact, one of the rarest species found in the wild. It can also be said that with their spotted coats and striking blue eyes, they’re also among the most beautiful. Unfortunately, this has led to their distressingly small numbers, as the species has been poached for their pelts. In addition, they have suffered severe habitat loss due to deforestation, as well as accidental death from hunting snares. This elusive creature is the critically endangered Amur leopard, Panthera pardus orientalis.

It’s hard to miss the big cats at any zoo, especially Amur leopards. Humans have a fascination with these deadly felines, perhaps because they’re powerful symbols of the untamed wilderness or perhaps because they’re exceptionally handsome creatures. Whatever the reason, people flock to their enclosures in droves, especially so if the big cat in question is a baby. When I most recently visited the St. Louis Zoo, all I had to do was follow the lines to see one of the newest additions to the Amur leopard species. It’s a chance that many people will never have, because while the leopards seem to hypnotize audiences, the species is dwindling.

Conservationists estimate that there are between thirty and fifty of these big cats left in the wild. Zoos across the world are engaged in a breeding program to try and restore the species, with a population of about three hundred captive leopards, and have eventual plans to introduce the cats into the wild. Thus, any birth of an Amur leopard is a great boon to the species. So when the St. Louis Zoo had the fortune of showcasing an Amur leopard cub, a female named Anastasia, it offered new hope to the species’ future. While Anastasia has garnered great attention, she’s not the first Amur cub to be born at the zoo.

“We have had two Amur leopard births in the last two years, so we have had a good amount of success with breeding in captivity,” says Bridget Ebert, a naturalist instructor working at the St. Louis Zoo. “It really helps to have a pair that really get along, which is the situation with our leopards.”

The other cub, Sofiya, was born in 2008 and is the sister of Anastasia. While the current cub is being reared by her mother, Sofiya was rejected by her mother after birth, not an uncommon occurrence for first-time cat mothers, and was hand-reared by zoo staff. As a result, the St. Louis Zoo has a lot of experience working with young Amurs, something which should prove beneficial to Anastasia’ future. With a creature as rare as the Amur, every little bit of help counts.

The species is currently classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species as critically endangered. The IUCN Red List is an organization that identifies and indexes species that are at risk of extinction. Their mission goals are to, as they say, “identify and document those species most in need of conservation attention if global extinction rates are to be reduced; and [to] provide a global index of the state of change of biodiversity.” They classify species using seven titles: least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and extinct. For a species to be classified critically endangered, one of the highest risk categories and the Amur leopard’s current classification, the population in the wild must be likely to decrease by at least 80% within three generations.

This is certainly true of the Amur leopard. While it was classified as endangered in 1994, its populations declined enough that just two years later in 1996, it was critically endangered. The species is believed to be extinct in the Korean Peninsula and China and according to AMUR, a Russian-British charity dedicated to raising funds for conserving Russia’s Amur tigers (also known as Siberian tigers) and leopards, “now only exists in the southernmost tip of the Russian Far East along the borders with China in the Khasan Region of Primorsky Krai.”

In order to preserve the last remaining members of the species and eventually introduce animals to the wild to replenish the dwindling numbers, many worldwide zoos participate in a leopard breeding program. In particular, the Amur leopard program that the St. Louis Zoo is participating in is the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s (AZA) Amur Leopard Species Survival Plan. This was established in May 2009, and is led by Diana Weinhardt of the Minnesota Zoological Garden. She maintains the studbook for AZA’s Amur leopard breeding program.

A studbook is basically a pedigree of a species in captivity, though wild animals may also be listed. According the Minnesota Zoo, which is also home to another Amur leopard, a studbook “should include information on all animals that have ever lived in captivity, no matter how long they remain there.” It should showcase the ancestry of the animal, including its wild relatives if possible. The animals are assigned a numbers to allow ease in the “construction of a pedigree for genetic analyses and of age specific births and deaths for demographic analyses.”

Accurate studbooks help maintain a healthy animal population by minimizing inbreeding among the captive population of a species. Inbreeding is a major hurdle for the survival and continued health of the Amur leopard. In the wild, there is an extremely limited genetic pool to draw from, so surviving leopards in a location are bound to be related. This is also a problem in captivity. With a population of a few hundred, leopards in captivity are at less of a risk of mating with an immediate relative, but inbreeding is still an issue. The Strategy for conservation of the Far Eastern leopard in Russia, which is a document detailing the policies for Amur leopard conservation adopted by the Russian government in 1998, “all of the leopards born in captivity have come from 10 founding members which were trapped in the wild.”

According to the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance, which is an international coalition of various organizations that contribute to Amur conservation efforts, this could lead to “reduced numbers due to reduced reproduction and lifespan and increased vulnerability to diseases,” which threatens the species. By maintaining an accurate studbook, conservationists can better plan leopard matches to reduce genetic abnormality brought on by inbreeding.

So what do these elaborate breeding plans mean for the future of little Anastasia, the St. Louis Zoo’s newest Amur leopard cub? When she reaches maturity, barring grievous abnormalities that would prevent reproduction, she will be bred to another captive Amur leopard and rear her very own blue-eyed cubs. Will she stay in the city? While it might disappoint the crowds of schoolchildren that love to gather around her enclosure to catch a glimpse of her playing or just sleeping, Ebert states the leopard will probably leave the area once she’s mature.

“It is very likely that when she is full grown, she will be moved to another zoo for breeding based on the recommendation of AZA. Her older sister has already been moved for that very reason.”

Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren may be introduced into the forest of Russia to supplement wild leopard populations. However, it won’t be as simple as dropping off the leopards in the Russian wilderness, because poaching and the destruction of their native habitat are still major problems.

“With less than 100 [leopards] existing in the wild, it seems that a comeback will be nearly impossible without releasing leopards from captivity,” says Ebert on the subject of threats to the future of the species. “But the problem is that the threats that caused the low numbers still exist in the area they live in, making releasing captive animals a difficult process.

Hopefully, there will still be an Amur leopard population for Anastasia’s descendants to mingle with.

Until then, Anastasia is a little ball of spotted fluff and whiskers. When I visited her in the zoo, elbowing the crowds out of the way just to catch a glimpse, I was struck with how like a domestic kitten she behaved. The young cub bounded around her enclosure, sniffing at strange scents, and occasionally pouncing on a stray leaf or her mother’s tail. It’s a little hard to believe that something so small (of course, not too small, since she’s already larger than some breeds of dogs.) and playful will grow up to be a sleek, regal leopard capable of killing with a single bite, but she will, and when she does, she will be magnificent.

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