Snow Leopard Begins Journey from Gilgit to New York
Monday August 07, 2006 (1101 PST)

GILGIT: Representatives from The World Conservation Union (IUCN), World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with representatives from the Bronx Zoo, participated in a send off ceremony at the Serena Hotel in Gilgit to begin the temporary transfer of a young snow leopard to the Bronx Zoo in New York.

Here is a picture of Leo. Ain't he cute.
Picture Credit:

On July 14, 2005, the Gilgit office of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P) was notified by a shepherd in the Naltar Valley, Northern Areas (NA) that he was in possession of an orphaned male snow leopard cub. The WWF-P team traveled to the Naltar Valley and brought the cub back to their office for veterinary examination. The cub was estimated to be about seven weeks old at the time and was declared to be in healthy condition.

The Northern Areas Forest and Wildlife Department and the Federal Government were immediately notified about the presence of the cub. The authorities decided to move the cub to a more appropriate facility near the Khunjerab National Park to be cared for by Kamal-ud-din, the supervisor of Wildlife Watchers in the Northern Areas Forest and Wildlife Department. However, with the onset of summer and the resulting increase in temperature, the young animal was taken back to Naltar Valley and has since remained there under Kamal-ud-din’s care. Leo, as the cub has come to be called, is now 13 months old, stands 21 inches tall and weighs about 25 kg. The Government of Pakistan and the Northern Areas Administration have been involved with the snow leopard since its rescue and have provided substantial support and attention to ensure not only the survival of the cub but also the development of a long-term program for the rehabilitation of future orphaned snow leopards and other foundling animals.

Snow leopard cubs born in the wild normally stay with their mothers until the age of about 18 to 22 months, learning all the basic skills necessary for survival in the extreme environment they inhabit. As Leo has been completely dependant on humans since he was about two months old, it was not practical to release him back into the wild. This necessitated looking at other possibilities to ensure his long-term survival. Among the various ideas being floated at the time was a bid to transfer Leo to a zoo in Pakistan and possibly using him in a captive breeding program. While this idea looked fine on paper the fact remains that zoos in Pakistan clearly lack the scientific expertise and resources to undertake such an effort. Moreover, since the snow leopard is listed on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as an endangered animal, Leo’s case was no longer a national issue but one of global biodiversity conservation.

Consequently, IUCN Pakistan (IUCN-P) intervened and suggested that the snow leopard be loaned by the Government of Pakistan for captive breeding to an international facility as part of a long-term conservation and rehabilitation program. After consultation and persuasion of all parties, IUCN-P launched the search for an appropriate facility and eventually identified the Wildlife Conservation Society/Bronx Zoo in New York, USA that runs a world-renowned snow leopard breeding program. The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo enthusiastically took on the venture.

Along with WWF-P and the Government of Pakistan, IUCN-P has been financing Leo’s food and shelter costs. For the past seven months, IUCN-P has also been actively facilitating a translocation process of Leo from his natural environment in the Naltar Valley to a simulation of his home at the Bronx Zoo, New York. Since July 30, a team of experts from the Bronx Zoo have been in Pakistan to organize the logistics of ensuring Leo’s safe passage to the United States. This process has also been instrumental in developing and strengthening the relationship between the Government of Pakistan, the Government of the United States of America, Wildlife Conservation Society, and WWF-P, all long-standing members of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The United States Embassy in Islamabad has been extremely helpful in ensuring high level support within the United States government for the translocation of the snow leopard as well as in the development of the agreement between the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Government of Pakistan.

In an effort to ensure the long-term sustainability of such a move, the agreement between the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Government of Pakistan has laid out the need for the development of a rehabilitation facility in Northern Pakistan as well as international training and capacity building for future staff of the facility. The snow leopard remains the property of the Government of Pakistan and will be returned to the Northern Areas Administration upon completion and approval of the rehabilitation facility. Leo is scheduled to leave for New York on August 9, 2006.

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