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Two Amur leopard cubs born at the Minnesota Zoo in May may one day frolic in the snows of Far East Russia to help one of the world's rarest species of big cats rebound.

The cubs' offspring could be released into the wild there in an effort to repopulate a critically endangered species with fewer than 40 animals in the wild. Just 188 Amur leopards survive in captivity.

"Two cubs can make a difference," said Tara Harris, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.

The Amur leopard cubs -- a yet-to-be-named male and female -- were born May 29 and went on exhibit at the zoo Wednesday, Sept. 19.

Amur leopards are native to the snowy climates of eastern Asia. They typically prey on small deer and are solitary animals that can have territories of up to 40 square miles.

The zoo's cubs are part of the Species Survival Plan, a mission of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to produce healthy, genetically diverse animals to aid in conservation. Their mother, Polina, has been a zoo resident since 2007; father Chobby came from the Olomouc Zoo in the Czech Republic in 2009.

Zoo officials are waiting to learn if the cubs will play a role in a project to reintroduce Amur leopards to habitat in Russia where there are now none of the animals.

Under the pending plan, a group of cubs would live in a large outdoor enclosure and be bred. Their offspring could later be released into the wild.

"That is certainly our hope," Harris said, noting a
cub's lineage plays a large role in which animals are chosen. "That is why we imported the father from the Czech Republic. He has good genes."

Even if the cubs don't venture to the wilds of eastern Russia, the animals are key to the efforts of the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance, a 13-member coalition, including the Minnesota Zoo, which raises money for big cat conservation.

Civilization encroaching on their habitat, poaching and deforestation have brought the animals to the brink of extinction.

"Given how critically endangered they are it is important to raise awareness to the public," Harris said.

And there may be more Amur cubs on the horizon.

Oksa, a second female on exhibit at the zoo, will be bred with Chobby next year.

source: Pioneer Press