August 8, 2006

Washington abuzz with arrival of snow leopard cub

By Sandra Maler

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington diplomatic circles were
abuzz on Tuesday with the imminent arrival of a new foreign
dignitary -- an orphaned snow leopard from Pakistan.

One of only a few thousand of the endangered species left
in the wild, the 13-month-old cub was rescued by a shepherd in
northern Pakistan a year ago after its mother was killed.

It is due to arrive at New York's Bronx Zoo on Wednesday
after months of diplomatic effort.

"U.S. diplomacy has many facets and protecting endangered
species is one of them," the State Department said in one of
several statements on the cub. "The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad
has worked tirelessly on this since news of the orphaned cub
was first received."

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, hosted a
special ceremony in an Islamabad luxury hotel on Tuesday to
send off the cub on his long cargo flight to New York.

"I would also like to commend the shepherd who found the
orphaned cub and saved his life by taking him in and giving him
shelter. It is because of that shepherd's compassion and
foresight that we are here today," Crocker said in a speech.

The shepherd who found the cub in Naltar Valley in
Pakistan's Karakoram Mountains sheltered him in his home and
later his grain shed before he contacted the World Wildlife
Fund. That set off a long string of diplomatic exchanges to
find the young cat an appropriate home.

Snow leopards, which are hunted for their fur, are some of
the most endangered mammals in the world. Only between 3,500
and 7,000 are estimated to be left in their natural habitat in
the mountains of Central Asia.

Wild snow leopard cubs usually remain with their mothers
until they are 18 to 22 months old. Since this cub was orphaned
when he was just a few weeks old, he never learned how to hunt
and will therefore never be released into the wild.

The plan is for the cat to stay at the Bronx Zoo until a
facility that can care for snow leopards can be built in
Pakistan, with the help of the U.S. government and the Wildlife
Conservation Society, or WSC, which runs the Bronx Zoo.


"The nice thing about the cat coming to the Bronx Zoo is
that we have two females of the about the same age that would
be potential mates," Jim Breheny, the zoo's director, told
Reuters on the telephone.

The Bronx Zoo, which began exhibiting leopards in 1903 and
bred its first snow leopard in 1966, is one of the few centers
in the world participating in the World Conservation Union
Species Survival Plan breeding program for snow leopards.

But even for the zoo, the world leader in breeding and
caring for snow leopards, this cub is a rare, prized gift.

"His genes are wild and not represented in the gene pool,"
Breheny said.

The cat, who now weighs 60 pounds (27 kg) will be bred when
he is about 3 years old in the hopes of widening the gene pool
of snow leopards bred in captivity.

"He's an unusual, very exciting cat to have," Dr. Steven
Sanderson, president and CEO of the WSC, told Reuters. "What is
really exciting about this animal is that it comes from the
wild. We don't ever take snow leopards from the wild any more,
except in extraordinary circumstances like this one."

He said the cub would initially be placed in quarantine for
about 30 days before being slowly introduced to the zoo's other
12 snow leopards -- four males and 8 females -- who all live
together. In the fall, the cub will make his public debut.