The Far Eastern leopard cub Leo 80M, who lost three toes in a poacher's trap, has caught seven rabbits and one fawn during his 20 days at the Center for Rehabilitation and Reintroduction of Tigers and Other Wild Animals.
The injured leopard was moved to a spacious open-air enclosure in early July. Specialists stopped feeding the cub prepared meat. Instead, live rabbits were released into the enclosure. Two days after moving in, Leo 80M enjoyed his first rabbit dinner, after which the other rabbits started disappearing. About two weeks later, specialists supplied a more serious target for Leo 80M to hunt down — a one-year-old spotted fawn. Video surveillance cameras showed that his fate was sealed on the very first night in the enclosure.
Experts say Leo 80M's behaviour shows that he is recovering quickly. Caretakers won't give him any new prey for about a week because they think he should lose some weight and get in shape.
"The leopard looks well. In the wild these cats don't eat very often, so we'll limit his diet a bit. Despite the fact that he lives in conditions that are close to natural, the space around him is still limited so it is easier for him to stalk and catch prey. In the future, we also plan to place deer into his enclosure, primarily to test his hunting skills," Viktor Kuzmenko, managing director of the centre, said.
Experts admit that if the leopard is released into the wild he will face more serious challenges. Now he is the sole master of his territory, whereas in the wild the animal will have to uphold his territorial rights against other individuals. The absence of three toes on a front paw hurts the cat's chances for adaptation in the wild.
"The most important thing for us is to provide security and the best possible living conditions for the injured cub. Needless to say, a wild animal is better off in the wild, and we hope Leo 80M will be ready for that. However, right now, no one can really guarantee that his release into the wild will not end in tragedy. Anyway, a decision about the leopard's future will be made by several people including Russian and international experts," Yelena Salmanova, deputy director for research and environmental education at Land of the Leopard National Park, said.
Land of the Leopard experts are now consulting with leading specialists in Russia and other countries, some of whom are strongly opposed to releasing Leo 80M into the wild. The future of the injured cub is still in question.