The Santa Barbara Zoo announced Tuesday that Ajax, its critically endangered female Amur leopard, is pregnant. Amur leopards are the world’s rarest big cats, with fewer than 100 remaining in the wild, and the Zoo has been attempting to breed the species for several years now.
“This is tremendously exciting news,” said Dr. Julie Barnes, vice president of animal care and health. “Breeding Amur leopards is complicated and challenging, and our team has worked really hard to help Ajax get pregnant.”
This is the first pregnancy for Ajax and will be the fourth litter for her partner, Kasha, who arrived at the Santa Barbara Zoo in March 2020, just prior to the first round of coronavirus closures. Amur leopards have a short gestation period of approximately three to three and a half months, so there is a limited window of time to prepare for the arrivals.
“Now that Ajax is pregnant, the next step is working toward her successfully giving birth and rearing her cubs,” continued Barnes. “Big cat births can have unpredictable outcomes, and especially with first-time mothers. Providing her with an appropriate denning area and undisturbed time to bond with her cubs is an important part of this process.”
Ajax, 7 years old, arrived at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2016 from the Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, England. Her genetics are unrepresented in North American zoos, so she plays an important role in diversifying the gene pool for the overall health of the population. Kasha, 11 years years old, came from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.
Amur leopards are solitary in nature, coming together only for breeding purposes, so introductions can be long, slow, and complicated. The pair have to be gradually acclimated to each other’s smell and presence, which can be a lengthy process. The reproductive cycle of the Amur leopard is not well understood, so information obtained from monitoring Ajax will contribute to a better understanding of the species.