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Pa. zoo gets Amur leopard for AZA breeding program

Published: February 28. 2010 12:01AM

Meet a unique leopard
By HEATHER CASS
heather.cass@timesnews.com

Meet Edgar, a handsome cat who has come all the way from Estonia to do nothing less than help save his species.

He plays it cool, of course, lounging around in the snow, lazily gazing at visitors. You’d never know that behind those spots and blue-gray eyes are million-dollar chromosomes.

“Genetically, he is one of the most important leopards in the country,” said Scott Mitchell, Erie Zoo president.

Edgar is an Amur leopard — one of the most endangered big cats in the world. Amur leopards are native to Korea, China and Russia.

“It’s estimated that there are less than 240 Amur leopards left in the world — 100 in European zoos, 80 in U.S. zoos, 10 in Canadian zoos and less than 30 in the wild,” said Cindy Kreider, Erie Zoo director.

The reason Edgar is so important is that his genes are not represented in any of the Amur leopard populations in the U.S. He was imported from Europe about 10 weeks ago along with another male Amur leopard that went to the Minnesota Zoo.

“Edgar and the other male are what the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan calls a ‘founder,’” said Kreider, who serves as vice chair of the Amur leopard SSP. “Their genes are unrepresented in the U.S., making their genetics extremely valuable in maintaining a healthy population.”

According to the AZA, the mission of the Species Survival Plan program “is to manage and conserve a select and typically threatened or endangered, ex situ species population with the required cooperation of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, certified related facilities, and approved nonmember participants.”

In plain English? The SSP keeps track of the gene pool for each endangered species. They manage the entire U.S. collection and decide which animals should and should not be bred.

Edgar is a prize acquisition for the Erie Zoo, which was chosen by the SSP to receive him because of its success in breeding Amur leopards.

“In the last several years, we’ve had 10 Amur leopard cubs,” Kreider said.

When asked why the Erie Zoo has been so successful in breeding these highly endangered big cats, Kreider gives credit to the Erie Zoo keepers who monitor the leopards carefully and, most importantly, provide the space they need to reproduce with minimal human interference.

“The cubbing box is set up with a camera and monitor system,” Kreider said. “We can see everything that is going on without having to disturb the mother or her cubs.”

So, how long before Edgar contributes to the U.S. Amur leopard gene pool?

“We don’t know that yet,” Kreider said. “At 2 years old, Edgar is just getting close to his breeding age. The SSP is still deciding who he is recommended to breed with. It may be recommended that we bring a female in from another zoo or he may be recommended to breed with our current Amur leopard, Tya.”

Some of that depends on whether the zoo’s pair of Amur leopards, Muran and Tya, produce a litter this year.

“They were recommended to breed again, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens there,” Kreider said.

While he waits for his mate, Edgar has been exploring his Erie Zoo exhibit and enjoying the snow. Visitors can see him in the jaguar exhibit right now.

“Most jaguars don’t care for the snow,” Kreider said. “But, Edgar loves it; it’s like his native habitat, and it doesn’t bother him at all.”

Sounds like Edgar’s going to love it in Erie.

HEATHER CASS can be reached at 870-1821 or at heather.cass@timesnews.com.

http://www.goerie.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100228/LIFESTYLES01/302289971/-1/LIFESTYLES

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org

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