Fewer than 40 Amur leopards remain in the wild, but plan to use animals bred from captive big cats may provide a lifeline

Endangered Amur leopards from UK zoos could soon be heading to Russia as part of a captive breeding and release programme to save the big cat.

There are estimated to be just 25 to 35 Amur leopards left in the wild in the far east of Russia, with numbers driven down by poaching of both the cat and its prey and damage to its habitat from activities such as logging and forest fires.

But experts are hoping to reverse the fortunes of the rarest big cat in the world with a programme using animals bred from captive Amur leopards.

A multinational scheme to reintroduce the species, which would run alongside efforts to protect the existing wild population, has so far failed to secure the necessary funding, but the Russian government has backed a Moscow-based programme.

Experts from organisations including the UK's Wildlife Vets International are working with the Russian scheme, which has established a captive breeding centre on the edge of the territory where it is planned leopards will be released.

Leopards will be mated and rear cubs at the centre, with the young fed live prey to allow them to learn how to hunt before they are released into the wild at around 12 to 18 months old – the time they would normally leave their mothers.

Dr John Lewis, veterinary director of Wildlife Vets International and veterinary adviser to the Amur leopard European captive breeding programme, said the centre could start receiving leopards in a few months' time.

Lewis said UK wildlife parks and zoos could contribute animals to the scheme once the European breeding programme was confident that the centre in Russia was suitable for the project.

Some improvements, such as better security, were needed first, he said.

Lewis has also developed a disease risk assessment to see what conditions may pose significant problems to Amur leopards, and a screening programme to ensure a healthy captive population with genetic diversity.

The plan is to rotate different animals through the Russian breeding programme so that the released young will be genetically diverse.

To begin with, the reintroduced population will be kept separate from the existing wild population to avoid conflict between cats and the risk of spreading disease.

It may be many years before the scheme can be judged to have been successful, but Lewis believes the programme could help with conservation management of other cat species.

"The Amur leopard is facing a situation which may face a number of other big cats in the future, with populations which become so low that in the blink of an eye it could be extinct," he said.

"A lot of lessons we learn in trying to manage this will be applicable to a much wider range of cats in the future.

"The more we learn about the whole process, on disease risk assessment and management and release, the more we will be in a position to help a wider range of cats."

Experts plan to use animals bred from captive Amur leopards to increase the species' population in Russia. Photograph: Wildlife Heritage Foundation/PA

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