Young snow leopards Sabu, a 1-year-old male, and Sarani, a 1-year-old female, on exhibit at Brookfield Zoo
Two young snow leopards have arrived at Brookfield Zoo—just in time for the holiday season. Guests visiting the zoo during the day or evening during its annual Holiday Magic celebration can view the cats in their outdoor habitat at The Fragile Kingdom.
In mid-October, the female and male juveniles arrived at Brookfield Zoo from different zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Sarani, a 1-year-old female, is from Tautphaus Park Zoo in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Her new mate, Sabu, is a 1½-year-old from Cape May County Park Zoo in New Jersey. Following a 30-day routine quarantine at the zoo’s Animal Hospital, the medium-size cats were introduced to their new home at Brookfield Zoo.
The pairing of Sarani and Sabu was based on a recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP). An SSP is a cooperative population management and conservation program for select species in accredited AZA zoos and aquariums. Each SSP manages the breeding of a species to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable. Although it may be at least another year before Sabu is mature, the plan is for the two snow leopards to breed and produce a healthy litter of cubs. Currently, there are 144 snow leopards in 63 AZA zoos. Brookfield Zoo has exhibited snow leopards since 1936.
Snow leopards are listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. A leading snow leopard conservation organization, The Snow Leopard Trust, estimates population numbers of this elusive cat to be between 3,500 and 7,000 remaining in the wild. They inhabit high, rugged mountainous regions of central Asia, including: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, China, Mongolia and Russia. Their numbers are declining due to human influence such as poaching for medicinal markets and hides, depletion of their prey base (blue sheep and ibex), retribution killing following livestock losses to snow leopards, residential and commercial development, and civil unrest.
Snow leopards are very well adapted to their high elevation habitat. Their rear legs are longer than their front legs allowing them to better negotiate steep terrain. They have long, dense fur from their head to tail that has a white, yellowish, and smoky-gray pattern with dark-gray to black spots and rosettes that provides great camouflage while hunting the rocky slopes. Additionally, snow leopards have an expansive lung capacity and enlarged nasal cavity that allows them to breathe the high altitude, low oxygenated air more effectively. In addition to wrapping their approximately 40-inch-long tail around their body and face for warmth when resting, snow leopards use it for balance, much the same way that humans stretch their arms out for balance when they walk across a log. Adult snow leopards weigh between 77 and 121 pounds, with males weighing about 30 percent more than females. Sarani and Sabu still have some growing to do, weighing approximately 50 and 70 pounds, respectively.