An orphaned snow leopard cub found in the Himalayas will be taken to the Bronx Zoo to support a captive breeding program for the endangered wild cat, officials said Tuesday.
A shepherd discovered the leopard, then only 7 weeks old, in July 2005 in the remote mountains of Pakistan's Naltar Valley after its mother and other cubs were killed. The cub was too young to be reintroduced into the wild.
Under a U.S.-Pakistani agreement, the 55-pound cub was handed over to the World Conservation Union to become part of its captive breeding program for snow leopards at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Leo is now 13 months old.
"Leo cannot practically be released back into the wild as he does not have the survival skills normally taught to cubs by their mothers during the first 18 months of their life," a statement from the conservation union said.
Only 5,000 to 7,000 snow leopards are left in the wild, mainly in the Himalayas and central Asia, including about 300 in northern Pakistan.
The wild snow leopard population has decreased in part because of killings by local herders when the animals attack their livestock. The World Conservation Union said poaching and illegal trading of the animals' fur and bones also played a role in their decline.
Leo was set to fly out of Pakistan on Wednesday. He will eventually be returned to northern Pakistan, where a snow leopard rehabilitation facility will be set up to help him transfer back into the wild.
The cub was handed over in a ceremony Tuesday in Islamabad, attended by Environment Minister Malik Amin Aslam and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who joked that the leopard had a "nonimmigrant visa" and could return to its homeland.
Patrick Thomas, curator of mammals at Bronx Zoo, said it would probably take three or four years before Leo and a female leopard would produce offspring. He said the zoo could send a female leopard back with Leo when he returns to Pakistan.