Highland Wildlife Blog – The Leopard of the Mountains

July 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

Recent visitors to the Highland Wildlife Park will have noted a significant amount of building activity on and around a cliff face on the hill near the centre of the site. It is a ridiculously steep location to consider building anything on, but it is a perfect location for the planned purpose and the abseiling lessons our project team underwent were definitely not an exercise in pandering to some overly cautious piece of health and safety legislation.

Ever since we expanded our species remit beyond solely Scottish animals to encompass a broader range of cold weather adapted creatures from around the world, a number of those that make their homes in the mountain ranges of our planet have found their way to the Highlands. Until now they have generally been some of the threatened wild sheep and goat species, mainly from the peaks of the Himalayas and Hindu Kush, but now we are preparing a home for the cat that preys upon them. The snow leopard is arguably the most beautiful of the wild cats of the world with its smoky grey and white coat and long, thick tail.

Female snow leopard, Animesh by Alex Riddell

Female snow leopard, Animesh by Alex Riddell

The snow leopard is Endangered and the subject of an international breeding programme, with many zoos providing significant support for the conservation of the species in the wild, including the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, of which the Highland Wildlife Park is a part. The captive population is carefully managed by a colleague in a Swedish zoo called Nordens Ark, and he has been pestering me for years to bring the species into the collection as he felt that they would thrive here, given our location, climate and level of proven expertise with a range of threatened carnivore species.

Our new snow leopard enclosure is in two parts: a pair of very large aviary style enclosures at the top, and the primary exhibit that is a grassy plateau that then drops down the face of the cliff and levels out with the public walkway at the bottom. By any standard, this will be a spectacular animal enclosure, and certainly the finest snow leopard exhibit in the UK. We are very lucky in that we are blessed with a suitably rugged and scenic location, and where other zoos will spend considerable sums on landscaping to achieve a suitable look, we just pick the best location in the Park for the species concerned.

Building the snow leopard enclosure

Building the snow leopard enclosure

We plan to have the pair of leopards settled into the large pens at the top of the cliff towards the end of July, where they will be readily visible to our visitors, while we continue to complete the main enclosure that encompasses the cliff. Over the years a number of our visitors have asked if we would ever consider getting snow leopards and I always responded that they were on the list. The addition of this magnificent species to the Park is both exciting and an obvious next step in our development.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

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