The San Diego Zoo has had leopards in our collection since our earliest days in the 1920s. Since 1929, we have had 70 leopards, representing five subspecies, born here.
Currently, there are three Amur leopards on exhibit at the Zoo. The trio arrived in March 2012 before their first birthday and can be found along Big Cat Trail in Africa Rocks. The female, named Zeya after a tributary of the Amur River, is a bit smaller than brothers Primorye, named for the region in Russia they come from, and Koshka, Russian for “cat.” As part of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan for Amur leopards, these cats, though related, are vital to the captive world population. They will be carefully paired with unrelated leopards after they mature, at around three to four years of age, and relocated to other facilities when needed for the breeding program either nationally or internationally. The resulting Amur leopard litters will help this critically endangered species rebound.
The Amur leopards make good use of the climbing areas and greenery in their exhibit. When they are awake and active, they are quite entertaining. And, like most cats, they also sleep an awful lot. They love exploring and playing with new things and have a keen appreciation for scents; keepers add spice oils like cinnamon, spearmint, and lavender to their hay and climbing structures. The cats seem to really enjoy minty scents.
Although the leopard is an adaptable cat, able to live in various habitats, some leopard subspecies are at critical risk. Leopard-skin coats were legal for many years and are still sold secretly. Many trees in leopard habitats have been cut down for building projects. Poachers kill leopards for their whiskers, which are used in some West African potions. Because leopards prey on livestock, ranchers trying to protect their animals frequently poison the large cats. All leopard subspecies are either endangered or threatened. The U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Commission on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) help protect leopards, as do wildlife parks in their home countries.
The Amur leopard, a subspecies living at the San Diego Zoo, exists on the cusp of extinction. As a conservation organization, we are working with other zoos to develop a sustainable and genetically diverse population of Amur leopards that can contribute to new scientific knowledge and to the survival of the species in restored and protected native habitat.
Monitoring the wild populations of Amur leopards is critical to understanding population trends, which will determine the effectiveness of current conservation measures. The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance and its partner, the Wildlife Conservancy Society, have been monitoring the leopards since 1997. The cats (and other wildlife) have been surveyed in winter by counting tracks in the snow along established animal paths to estimate leopard density and population size. In 2002, camera traps were added to allow researchers to identify individual leopards by their unique spot patterns and monitor individual animals over many years. Used year-round, the images uncover the secret lives of these cats walking, stalking, and rolling playfully on the ground. Camera images also captured prey species including sika deer, boars, and yellow-throated martens.
The Amur leopard is under siege from a variety of pressures including poaching of the leopards and their prey, loss of habitat due to forest fires, inbreeding due to tiny, isolated populations, human development and activities in their habitat, and lack of political commitment to conservation (a trend that is slowly shifting in the cats’ favor). Yet things are far from hopeless. The small but mighty wild population in Russia’s Primorsky Krai has remained mostly stable over the past 30 years, in spite of significant human pressures. Anti-poaching efforts and educational programs appear to be working. China has established a reserve that connects with leopard (and tiger) habitat in Russia, and there is a possibility of establishing a second wild population by reintroducing zoo-bred Amur leopards in Russia’s Far East.
The protection of leopards, their prey, and their habitat is finally improving. Through cooperative, committed, international conservation efforts, leopards will have something to “stalk about” for generations to come.