A Bright Spot

Amur leopard cubs at the Zoo help highlight the fight to save the rarest big cat in the world

BY Peggy Scott

Photography by Ken Bohn

The somewhat downbeat story of the critically endangered Amur leopard Panthera pardus orientalis just took a slight upswing—two, in fact—with the arrival of a pair of adorable cubs on April 5, 2018, at the San Diego Zoo. An examination two months later revealed that both cubs are female and thriving.

A leopard’s spots are called rosettes because they resemble roses (note the ones on the torso).

While the precious balls of fluff are certifiably cute (and the first birth of their species at the Zoo), the cubs, named Dorothy and Maryanne, also represent a bit of hope for their species, which could use a little good news. With fewer than 80 individuals left in the wild, Amur leopards are the rarest big cat species on the planet. Their numbers are dwindling, but with some effort, including a Global Species Management Program (GSMP), the tale of these enigmatic, charismatic felines could be starting a promising
new chapter.

See Spot(s) Run—and Climb

For the first few weeks of the cubs’ lives, Satka, their four-year-old mother, kept her bundles of joy—and their adoring public—in the dark. And that’s a good thing, according to the leopards’ main caretaker, senior keeper Todd Speis. “Their den is dark and quiet, much as it would be in the wild,” Todd explains. “We’re hands off. If we had to do a den check, we made sure to use a low-light flashlight. The more natural it is for the cubs, the better.” Todd is quick to add that the keepers still manage to keep an eye on their cats. “For the first few days, we placed a trail camera in the exhibit to check out what was going on when we were not around,” he notes.

Sometimes, you just need your mom.

Satka, a first-time mother, proved she was more than up to the challenge. “She’s doing all the right things,” Todd says. “She’s got a protective attitude, and is very attentive.” As the cubs grew, Satka became more confident and began leaving the den for short “me time” breaks. Soon, the youngsters began exploring. “It’s up to them,” Todd says. “She’s trying to control them, but they’re completely mobile now, and they’re really curious little cats; hissy, but curious.”

Because male leopards do not participate in the raising of their offspring, the cubs’ father, five-year-old Oskar, lives in an exhibit down the path from the rest of the family. “He’s a mellow, handsome guy,” Todd says. “We knew they would have pretty ‘kids’.”

The Amur leopard’s top MPH

Leopard Lessons

Between chasing each other through the underbrush, wrestling matches, and testing their claws out on the exhibit’s trees, the cubs are keeping themselves busy learning to be leopards. Todd adds that husbandry-related training is beginning, albeit gradually. “We trained them to be apart by separating Satka from the cubs for short periods of time, working up to when they would need their vaccinations,” Todd says. “As the cubs got older, we began to build a relationship with them. But the highest priority in the beginning is the relationship they have with each other and with their mother.”

The number of feet an Amur leopard can leap while carrying prey

Big Cat Challenges

Native to the rocky mountain woodlands in the Primorye region of southeastern Russia and the Jilin Province of northeast China, the Amur leopard is facing some daunting challenges. As with many species, habitat loss is a huge factor. “These leopards have a complicated lifestyle, because they need a large area in which to hunt and live,” Todd explains. “And they’re solitary, so there simply needs to be more places for the individual animals to go.” Also, one of the characteristics that makes Amur leopards so photogenic also makes them targets for poachers. “They are hunted for their thick, spotted coats,” Todd says.

The length, in inches, of an Amur leopard’s winter coat

Changing the Pattern

Fortunately, these majestic cats aren’t fighting the battle against extinction alone. For the past seven years, animal care staff at more than 94 institutions around the world have worked to gain management experience with this species, transporting cats from zoos in Europe to North America for approved breeding as part of the GSMP. More than 220 leopards in zoos and breeding centers are part of this conservation effort, with the ultimate goal being to increase native populations.

In conjunction with habitat preservation and restoration efforts, the breeding program in zoos is designed to support the sustainability of the Amur subspecies by building a baseline population, which will then produce offspring that could help bolster the dwindling population in the wild. After working with the big cats for almost a decade, Todd notes that the time for action is now. “There aren’t many animals here at the Zoo that are rarer than the Amur leopard,” Todd says. “People don’t realize just how few of them there are. These leopards are where the California condors were in the 1980s,” he says. “It is critical that we act now.”

The cubs’ feisty personalities emerged early

But we have to make sure those cats have some place to call home, and that there is room for growth. Field projects protect the remaining animals in the wild, and the hope is that the population will slowly grow in numbers, specifically in the trans-border region of Russia and China.

Amur leopards may not be able to change their spots, but with some help, they might be able to get out of the tough spot they’re currently in. There are two little, spotted faces ready to be the poster-cubs of the conservation effort.