Two Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis), the world’s rarest big cat, have been born at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire.

Experts estimate the number of Amur leopards in the wild in China and south east Russia is less than 50, making the species vulnerable to extinction, so the arrival of the two cubs represents a significant step forward.

Twycross is a member of the captive breeding initiative, the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) in which expert committees analyse data from captive Amur leopards in zoos across Europe for suitable breeding matches.

John Lewis, veterinary advisor to the Amur leopard and tiger EEP and veterinary director of Wildlife Vets International, said: “We don’t know how many of the Amur leopards remaining in the wild are young or old, male or female.

“So if the population is skewed towards too many males, or too many older individuals, this can impact the species’ chances of breeding successfully.

“The added threats of disease and human-animal conflict also jeopardise the animals’ survival. Zoo breeding programmes are fundamental to protecting and saving species that are close to extinction in the wild.”

A healthy, managed population of Amur leopards underpins international plans to reintroduce them to the wild habitats from where they are disappearing.

As well as participating in the EEP, Twycross Zoo is also funding research by Wildlife Vets International on the feasibility and risks of reintroducing Amur leopards to Russia.

Research is under way, assessing any risk of disease from prey species or domestic animals, such as canine distemper virus, as well as tick-borne pathogens and mitigation measures are being explored.

Progress is slow as plans involve complex negotiations with governments and organisations. The decision on whether to proceed with the leopard reintroduction is imminent, and rests in the hands of the Russian government.

Charlotte Macdonald, head of life sciences at Twycross Zoo said: “We are delighted with the birth of two rare Amur leopard cubs.

“We are hopeful these UK-born babies will one day be part of wider conservation plans for the reintroduction of the species to the wild. Although animals are best conserved in the wild, and it’s unlikely that any reintroduction will take place for several more years, captive-bred cubs such as these could help save the Amur leopard from disappearing forever.”

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