One of the rarest cats in the world has been born at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park and could be released into the wild in Russia in the future.

It would be the first ever reintroduction to the wild of a critically-endangered Amur leopard.

Highland Wildlife Park is home to the zoo world’s only purpose-built Amur leopard habitat which is not on public view. This habitat has been designed solely to breed Amur leopards and maximise the possibility of their being released into the wild, to add to the very limited existing population.

With minimal human contact, it is not yet known if more than one cub has been born.

Douglas Richardson, head of living collections at the park, at Kincraig, near Kingussie, said, “Our approach to managing this highly threatened cat is globally unique, with the zoo and conservation community watching what we do with a view to following our lead.

“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.

“Although progress has been made in recent years, habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans remain threats to the Amur leopard, with only around 100 remaining in the wild.

“We have the only specially designed off-show breeding habitat in the zoo world, which ensures minimal interaction with humans and no contact with our visitors.

“Working with conservation partners, including ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and conservation authorities in Russia, we hope to introduce cubs born at the park to a region northeast of Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East.

“A phased approach would be needed, with young leopards spending several months acclimatising and sharpening their survival skills in a contained, naturalistic environment within the proposed location of Lazovsky Zapovednik, before being released and monitored.

“Introducing such a large predator to the wild is incredibly complex but, all being well, we hope this may be possible in the next few years.

“This is incredibly exciting and again demonstrates the vital role zoos and conservation breeding programmes have in protecting threatened species.”

The park’s breeding complex was completed last year and funded by an anonymous donation. Freddo, the father, arrived from Tallinn Zoo in Estonia, while the mother, Arina, was born at Twycross Zoo in the Midlands.

“Initially we confirmed the birth by observing the behaviour of the mother, as Arina had become increasingly secretive,” said Mr Richardson.

“We have since heard cub vocalisations and one of our keepers caught a fleeting glimpse of Arina moving a cub from a distance.

“At this early stage we do not know if Arina has had more than one cub and we also need to emphasise that the first few weeks are a vulnerable time in a cub’s life. We have motion sensitive cameras in place and hope these will tell us everything is okay and that we have healthy offspring.

“A cub’s first physical check-up would be when they are around three months old, at which point we would discover their gender.”