Thursday, August 10, 2006

Leo the snow leopard is US-bound

The US State Department has announced the impending arrival of an unusual guest from Pakistan - an orphaned snow leopard cub.
Thirteen-month-old Leo is due in New York on Wednesday after surviving both the loss of his parents and the Pakistani earthquake.

He was found in the snow-hit north of the country last year by a shepherd who hand-fed him to keep him alive.

The snow leopard is one of the world's most endangered big cat species.

Leo - one of only a few thousand snow leopards left in the wild - was found by the shepherd in the mountains of north Pakistan in July 2005.

The shepherd's family cared for the animal for several months, but he grew too big, and was handed over to the authorities.

He now weighs 28 kilos (60 pounds).

"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," said the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker.

"It is because of that shepherd's compassion and foresight that we are here today," Mr Crocker said in a speech prior to the cub's departure from Islamabad to New York.

"The snow leopard gets to go on an expenses-paid journey to the United States, where his only responsibilities will be eating, growing and breeding."

Officials say that under the terms of the agreement, Pakistan will receive help from the US to develop a snow leopard conservation centre.

The US embassy heard of the animal's plight after October's earthquake in Pakistan which killed more than 70,000 people.

Arrangements were made with the help of Pakistani conservation experts for the cub to be transferred to New York's Bronx Zoo.

The US has praised Pakistan for arranging the transfer, describing it as a symbol of Islamabad's "commitment to conservation".

Snow leopards are hunted for their fur, and it is estimated that there are only between 3,500 to 7,000 left in their natural habitat across the mountains of south and central Asia.

Cubs usually remain with their mothers until they are between 18 to 22 months old.

"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 zoo began exhibiting leopards in 1903 and bred its first snow leopard in 1966.

It is one of the few centres in the world participating in the World Conservation Union's Species Survival Plan for snow leopards.

Officials at the zoo say that only in "extraordinary circumstances" are snow leopards taken in from the wild, and that the hope is that the cat will be used for breeding purposes when he is around three years old.

But before Leo meets his new friends at the zoo - four male snow leopards and three females - he must spend about 30 days in quarantine.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4776031.stm

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