A new cub at the Bronx Zoo is the cat’s whiskers.
Even Pakistan’s wildlife thrives abroad. The newest star attraction at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo is a cub born to Pakistan’s Leo, a snow leopard rescued from the Nalter Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan eight years ago. The yet-unnamed cub was born April 9 and weighs 17 lbs. He is on display now in New York City alongside his mother, Maya.
The birth has excited Pakistani and American diplomats. “It’s heartening to learn that Leo had his own cub this summer,” says Asad Majeed Khan of the Pakistan Embassy in Washington. “Leo has served as a symbol of deep friendship and abiding good will between our countries.” Leo’s “remarkable journey is testament to the commitment of the Pakistani people in protecting their natural resources,” says Richard G. Olson, Washington’s envoy to Islamabad, and, of course, “to the depth of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation.”
Leo was shipped to America precisely because Pakistan has been unable to protect its endangered species. “One of the reasons IUCN helped push hard to get Leo to the Bronx Zoo was because there was simply no adequate facility within Pakistan,” says Aban Marker Kabraji of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “A world-class wildlife rescue and rehabilitation facility is still urgently needed in the country.”
Snow leopards have been on the IUCN’s Red List of Endangered Species since 1975. Their population has declined some 20 percent over 16 years because of prey depletion, habitat fragmentation, retaliation killings, and trophy chasing. Still, there are an estimated 3,500 of them in parts of China, Mongolia, Russia, India, and Bhutan; and between 200 and 420 spread across 80,000-square-kilometers in Pakistan.
WCS, which runs the Bronx Zoo, is an invaluable partner for Pakistan. It has a century of experience in snow-leopard care, and ongoing projects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China. Since 1997, it has created 60 committees and trained more than 100 Pakistani rangers to protect wildlife, especially snow leopards. Its program to insure farmers in Baltistan against the loss of livestock to preying carnivores has been so successful that it’s been exported to China, India, and Nepal. USAID has also stepped up. It recently announced $100,000 for a community-conservation program to protect snow leopards in Chitral. But, as their dwindling count screams, much more needs to be done to save the big cats. “More concerted action needs to be taken in the areas where they live,” says Scott Perkin from IUCN’s biodiversity-conservation program. “This means local level action that addresses the needs of both people and wildlife.”
The half-Pakistani cub in the Bronx “is very active and spends a great deal of time exploring his environment,” Dr. Patrick Thomas, the zoo’s general curator, tells Newsweek. “He spends most of his time with his mother, either playfully wrestling her or just resting beside her.”
Thomas was part of the team—which also included Pakistan’s Wildlife Department, World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan, and IUCN—that saved the cub’s father, Leo, from the Pakistan wild after his mother and siblings were killed by poachers. Leo has been on loan to the Bronx Zoo since August 2006, and resides in the award-winning Himalayan Highlands habitat there. In 2010, Leo got star treatment in the children’s book, Leo, the Snow Leopard, authored by Tribeca Film Festival cofounder Craig Hatkoff and his daughter Isabella. (Hatkoff is also famous for his book on Knut the polar bear.)
Leo was moved to New York in August 2006 under a “groundbreaking agreement” facilitated by the U.S. government between Pakistan and the WCS. He remains the property of Pakistan, but will stay in the U.S. until his birth country can establish a snow leopard rehabilitation facility up north. Plans to set up such a facility remain stillborn. It is just as well. Pakistan’s wild beasts seem to fare much better in American captivity. Meanwhile, Peter Zahler of the WCS says the Pakistani government has been asked to name Leo’s firstborn. Too bad the cub isn’t female. Islamabad could have named it Aafia.
From our Sept. 13 & 20, 2013, issue.