Global effort to conserve endangered wildlife hailed
By Judy Aita
Washington File Staff Writer
25 September 2006
New York — Leo, the orphaned snow leopard cub from Pakistan, made his New York debut September 25, greeted by delighted officials from two continents who worked to save one of the world’s most endangered and beautiful mammals.
Leo’s new home is a quiet .4 hectare area — known as the Himalayan Highlands Habitat — at the end of a path through a bamboo grove in the 107-hectares Bronx Zoo. But Leo’s tranquil retreat and the hushed voices of his greeters belie the size and complexity of his rescue, care, travel from Pakistan and temporary stay in the United States at one of the world’s greatest zoos.
Steven Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and its Bronx Zoo, said that the cub will be an inspiration to 2 million zoo visitors each year.
The beautiful snow leopard “is a symbol of shared values between our two countries, a sense of devotion to natural resources, and preservation of our heritage both cultural and biological,” Sanderson said at a small ceremony.
After WCS heard that Leo had been orphaned and could not be released into the wild because he would not have the opportunity to learn hunting and survival skills from his parent, the zoo was invited by the government of Pakistan to help, Sanderson said.
“We are uniquely situated to care for this wonderful animal because we were the first zoo in the world to show snow leopards over 100 years ago,” Sanderson said. “Since 1903, we’ve had 90 snow leopard babies at the Bronx Zoo. So rest assured Leo will have the best of care and a wonderful situation.”
Sehba Musharraf, the first lady of Pakistan, said Leo marks “the beginning of a new dimension” in the multifaceted U.S.-Pakistani relationship.
“Leo will return to Pakistan,” the first lady said. But before he returns, Pakistan will develop a snow leopard conservation center for rehabilitation and breeding facilities for snow leopards with the support of the United Nations and in cooperation with the Bronx Zoo.
“I know Leo will meet new friends at the Bronx Zoo. His presence is symbolic of the excellent cooperation between Pakistan and the United States and the enduring friendship and goodwill” between Pakistan and the United States, she said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science Claudia McMurray called Leo’s arrival “an important success story in the global effort to conserve endangered wildlife.”
“Some might ask, is it important to bring an animal from the wild to live temporarily in a U.S. zoo? Does this action actually help save the endangered snow leopard for future generations? The answer to both of these questions is an overwhelming yes,” McMurray said.
Leo can educate thousands of visitors, both American and from other countries, about the plight of the snow leopard. And, eventually, he will spread the same word among the Pakistani people, McMurray said.
The assistant secretary of state read a letter from U.S. first lady Laura Bush, who hailed the cub as an ambassador of friendship and education that can “teach all of us so much about how to save other endangered snow leopards and about our responsibilities as stewards of the earth.”
Leo appeared unmoved by the event. True to his species, he was shy and barely could be seen through the trees as he lounged on a boulder with his back to the visitors. His pale gray fur with dark rosettes made him blend into his new home so well that only when he moved could he be seen near the top of a hill.
Leo’s new neighbors, two red pandas, seemed equally unimpressed by the distinguished visitors. One slept in a tree; the other paced by a stream. White-naped cranes, the endangered Asian birds bred successfully at the Bronx Zoo, reside in a marsh area across the path from Leo.
The snow leopard cub, now about 14 months old, was found by a goatherd in the Naltar Valley in the Karakorum Mountains of northern Pakistan. After caring for the growing cub in their house, the herder and his family approached representatives of the World Wildlife Fund, which was working in the region, for help. The cub then was moved to Gilgit where the Pakistani government took over its care. (See related article.)
A cooperative effort by Pakistan, the U.S. government and the WCS enabled a team of wildlife experts to travel to the remote valley and transport the animal by jeep to Islamabad. Leo arrived in New York on August 9 aboard a British Airways plane after an officially arranged quick transfer through Heathrow Airport in London to minimize the effect of the summer heat.
Leo then underwent routine quarantine at the zoo’s Wildlife Health Center and an acclimation period in his new home among tall oaks, tulip trees, boulders and 12 other snow leopards before his official presentation September 25.
Snow leopards are among the world’s most endangered big cats. An estimated 3,500 to 7,000 remain in the wild, restricted to remote mountains of Central Asia, according to zoo officials. Pakistan has 200 to 400 snow leopards in the wild.
Snow leopards still are hunted for their pelts, in spite of the fact they are a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora and are listed on the World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Species as endangered.
Additional information is available on the WSC Web site.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)