Amur leopards are among the most endangered species of big cats in the world, with only 70 in existence in the wild, but there could be hope for this critically endangered species with the birth of three cubs in a Yorkshire zoo.

The birth of the Amur leopards at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP) two months ago has been hailed by conservationists as a landmark in the effort to rebuild the animal's number.

The three cubs, which remain unseen in public, were born in a special reserve at the park, allowing their parents Drake and Freya to rear them without human intervention.

CCTV cameras installed in the reserve have been capturing every minute of the cubs' lives since they were born on June 28. Because the animals are carefully shielded from the public, the park only released footage from the CCTV and stills showing the cubs and their mother ahead of their scheduled vaccinations this week.

The cubs and their parents could play a crucial role in an international effort that plans to reintroduce the animals back into their native habitat in a remote region in Russia. The Amur Tiger and Leopard Alliance (ALTA) planned to reintroduce the Amur Leopards in the Lazovsky Nature Reserve in Southern Sikhote Alin in Southeastern Russia where the animals disappeared about three decades ago.

Simon Marsh, Animal Collection Manager at YWP, said that as early as two years from now, they could be working with an international conservation community to reintroduce the Amur leopard back into their native land.

"This is a very exciting stage in the fight to save the critically endangered Amur leopard from extinction," Marsh said. "The European breeding program has been working tirelessly towards securing the future of this species and Drake and Freya have provided hope with their cubs."

Amur leopards are specially adapted to live in the freezing conditions of eastern Russia and can live between 15 and 20 years.

The animal's number decreased to near extinction as they were poached because of the high value of their fur. The declining number of their prey, which is attributed to hunting in the region, is also considered a factor to vanishing numbers of the animal.

Increased conservation efforts in China and Russia, along with a boost in the population of the traditional prey of the leopards, the sika deer, could make it likely that a new population of Amur leopards would be established in 15 years.

Photo: Tony Hisgett | Flickr

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