THEY are among the world’s most endangered big cats – driven to the edge of extinction by poachers, habitat loss and conflict with humans.

With only around 100 Amur leopards left in the wild, experts have long warned that urgent action is needed to save the species, which is native to the far east of Russia. 

Now the spectacular animals, renowned for their white or cream fur and large black spots, have been thrown a lifeline – thanks to pioneering zoologists in Scotland.

A breeding pair are being looked after in a special enclosure at the Highland Wildlife Park, near Kingussie, Inverness-shire, as part of what has been called a “globally unique” approach, with fresh hope sparked after keepers confirmed that Freddo and Arina had given birth to one – if not more – cubs.

Staff plan to move the animals to Russia in future as part of conservation efforts.

They said that, if successful, the release would be the first ever reintroduction into the wild of an Amur leopard. 

“Being able to send captive-bred Amur leopards back to a part of their historic wild range in Russia would represent an extraordinary conservation success,” said Douglas Richardson, head of living collections at the park.

The park is already at the forefront of international preservation efforts, housing the world’s only purpose-built Amur leopard habitat, which is not on public view. 

The 7,000 square metre enclosure is a specially designed “off-show breeding” area which ensures minimal interaction with humans and no contact with visitors to maximise the possibility of successful release into the wild.

Staff at the park, which is run by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, confirmed the birth of a cub after recognising its crying sound. 

However, the only sighting of the new arrival – believed to have been born around June 17 – has been made through camera traps.

Mr Richardson, who designed the leopard enclosure, revealed that he based his plans on blueprints for a similar structure aimed at housing tigers.

And he said the Highlands, positioned “near the same latitude as Vladivostok”, would be particularly suited for breeding the animals.

“There are very wild areas of birch and juniper forest, so it looks very much like [the proposed habitat in] Lazovsky, Russia,” he added. 

“We can produce cubs, we manage them with hands-off, natural feeding so that when they hit 18 months or two years old, they are not habituated to people. 

“Then we can take them straight out to Russian and through an acclimatisation programme to be released. So basically it speeds up the whole process by about four to five years.”

The leopards – also known as Far East, Manchurian or Korean leopards – have a small range in Russia and are confined to forests crossed by the Amur River.

Staff at the park are now waiting to see how many cubs are born and whether they are male or female.

Mr Richardson said conservationists would be watching the project “quite carefully”, adding that it could “act as a prototype for future projects in other parts of the world”. 

He said: “Reintroducing a big carnivore is about as complex as it gets and also as about as exciting as it gets. 

“From our point of view, it is an exceptional accomplishment to get this far.  We’ve still got a fair way to go, but the fact that we now know the facilities work and we’ve got offspring means we’re going through the next stages.

“From a zoological management point of view, this is incredibly exciting 
because nobody’s really done this before, certainly not in a zoo environment.”

The park’s breeding complex was completed last year and funded by an anonymous donation.

Freddo arrived at the park from Tallinn Zoo in Estonia while Arina was born at Twycross Zoo in the Midlands.