Snow Leopards at the Bronx and Central Park Zoos

Snow Leopard at the Bronx Zoo Photo
Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

From Central Park to Central Asia, WCS is a world leader in the care and conservation of snow leopards. In 1903, the Bronx Zoo became the first zoo in the Western Hemisphere to exhibit these rare spotted cats. Today, the Bronx Zoo’s Himalayan Highlands exhibit and Central Park Zoo’s Allison Maher Stern Snow Leopard Exhibit are home to the most important collection of snow leopards in North America. Nearly 80 cubs have been born at the Bronx Zoo over three decades as part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), which helps ensure a healthy population of select endangered species in zoos. Because these secretive cats are difficult to observe in the wild, we have learned much of what we know about their behavior and physiology from studies conducted at the zoo. Our exhibits in New York have also helped raise awareness about the plight of these majestic felines and their neighbors in the wild, and the role that people can play in their survival.

Challenges

Snow leopards are among the world’s most endangered big cats. Only an estimated 3,500–7,000 remain in the wild, where they are restricted to remote mountains of Central Asia. There, these cats face threats ranging from poaching for the fur trade to the decline in their natural prey (primarily wild mountain sheep and goats) due to overhunting. As food becomes increasingly scarce, some snow leopards turn to livestock, which can pit herders against them. Because of the decline in their wild populations, zoos have become integral in the care of these cats.

In the wild, snow leopard conservation strategies are complicated by the secretive habits of the cats, which are only rarely spotted by field scientists. Furthermore, individual cats are particularly challenging to identify, unlike tigers or jaguars, whose unique stripes and spot patterns make each cat very distinct. Each snow leopard’s markings may appear different depending on the angle one sees the cat from, its age, and even the season—winter coats are much longer and less distinctly marked than summer coats.

What WCS is Doing

Together with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, WCS has helped manage the snow leopard SSP since its start in 1984. The many snow leopard cubs born at the Bronx Zoo have been sent to live at 30 zoos in the United States and eight countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. This network of snow leopard care has served as a kind of ark to ensure the survival of the species.

In the field, WCS conservationists are identifying key snow leopard habitats and working with local communities to develop sustainable conservation strategies that benefit the cats and people alike. In 2006, WCS scientists brought a snow leopard cub, orphaned in the wild, from Pakistan’s remote Naltar Valley to New York City. The transfer of the 13-month-old cub, named Leo, to the Bronx Zoo resulted from a unique partnership among the U.S. State Department, the Pakistani government, WCS, and other conservation groups. WCS will host Leo at the Bronx Zoo’s Himalayan Highlands exhibit until adequate holding facilities for him and others of his species are established in his Pakistani homeland.

The Bronx Zoo Mammal Department and WCS field staff have also worked together on a census technique for snow leopards in the wild. In 2004, the team tested the effectiveness of cameras to identify snow leopard individuals. They began by photographing each of the zoo’s snow leopards from multiple angles, mimicking the range of pictures normally taken by camera traps in the field. In a “blind” study, biologists from the California-based Snow Leopard Conservancy reviewed the images to determine whether they could distinguish between cats, and which parts of the coats were most useful for identifying each one. This technique is now employed by WCS field scientists, who use remote camera traps planted in the wild to monitor individual cats.

From the Newsroom

WCS Opens New Home for Great CatsJune 11, 2009

WCS’s newest exhibit at the Central Park Zoo spotlights the endangered snow leopards of Asia’s great mountain ranges, and the WCS conservation efforts to save them.

Fresh Start for a Snow Leopard OrphanAugust 15, 2006

The Bronx Zoo is giving refuge to a young snow leopard orphan abandoned in Pakistan. The transfer of this endangered cat united the Pakistani government, the U.S. State Department, and WCS in a remarkable conservation effort.

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