The involvement of zoos in Amur leopard conservation is essential and their most important contributions can be broken down into four broad categories:
1) Increasing public awareness
Zoos play a very valuable role in making the public aware of the existence of Amur leopard and the urgent need to improve its conservation. The Amur leopard is much less well known than its larger “cousin”, the Amur tiger. As a result, most attention and international conservation funds have focused on Amur tigers. As the remaining wild Amur leopards do not live where the main population of Amur tigers can be found, they have gained little from conservation efforts for Amur tigers. Increasing popularity of the Amur leopard and awareness of its urgent conservation needs in both Russia and countries in the west is therefore essential.
2) Financial support
Zoos provide much needed funds for the Amur leopard and more than 40 zoos worldwide have contributed to Amur leopard in situ conservation (probably a world record for a single subspecies program). European zoos (EAZA) have provided approximately $600,000 in total and North American zoos (AZA) approximately $150,000 in total to ALTA partners since 1996.
3) Generation of useful data and skills
This is a very diverse category which includes development of safe anesthesia techniques, pugmark measurements for calibration of field signs, blood samples for genetic studies, pelage photos for taxonomic research and much more. Husbandry and veterinary skills developed in zoos can be transferred to the wild and data gathered from both captive and wild leopards will provide valuable information for the proposed reintroduction plan.
4) Maintaining a “genetic reservoir” for reintroduction
Providing leopards for reintroduction
There are presently approximately 200 Amur leopards in the European and North-American zoo breeding programmes.
The Amur leopard is probably the only large cat for which a reintroduction programme using zoo stock is likely to take place in the near future. The European Zoo breeding programme (EEP) has in place a breeding management strategy with this goal of being able to provide suitable animals for reintroduction.
A reintroduction plan has been prepared by local and international experts including WCS, ZSL, WWF Russia, Lazovsky Nature Reserve, the local NGO ISUNR, and the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Pacific Institute of Geography and Institute of Biology and Soils. We expect that in 1-2 years from now preparations in the field (building of holding facilities and other infrastructure) will have begun and we are currently waiting for formal approval for the plan to go ahead from the Russian authorities.