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A litter of threatened snow leopard cubs has been born at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park.
Just eight weeks old, the cubs are still being nursed by mum Animesh and have started to leave their cubbing box and explore outside.
Staff at the wildlife conservation charity are delighted, though the coming weeks are critical for the cubs’ survival.
Una Richardson, the park’s head of carnivores, said: ‘We are thrilled, though we remain cautious as this is still a very delicate stage in their development.
‘Animesh has had three cubs and they will be health checked by our keepers and vets around three weeks from now.
‘Snow leopards are relatively solitary animals so dad Chan is living separately from Animesh and the cubs, who will remain with their mum until they are around two years old.’
Chan arrived at the park, near Kingussie, from Zoo Krefeld in 2015, with Animesh following later the same year from Marwell Zoo.
Una added: ‘With a wild population estimated to be as low as 2,700, snow leopards are classed as vulnerable, with threats including declining prey populations, protection of livestock and an increasing demand for their bones in traditional Asian medicine.
‘The good news is they are now protected throughout much of their range and the international trade in the species has been banned.
‘Animesh and Chan are part of the European endangered species breeding programme, with every birth being a potential lifeline and increasing the possibility of future generations being reintroduced into the wild.’
Show leopards’ mating season runs from early January to mid-March, when long-drawn-out wailing calls can be heard echoing around mountains.
The female usually gives birth to a litter of two to three cubs, which are born with black spots, and become independent from their mother at around two years old.
Snow leopards can be found in the harsh, remote, mountainous areas of central Asia. The species’ range is an arc from Mongolia, down through central Asia, along the Himalayas and north into China. However, many of the wild populations are extremely fragmented.
There are several organisations involved with the conservation of the species, covering many different areas including research and data storage, education, community-based conservation, and the protection of livestock to prevent retributive killing of snow leopards.