Later this summer, a new four-legged feline will join the Santa Barbara Zoo family.
The Zoo’s Animal Care and Health team confirmed on Tuesday that Ajax, its female Amur leopard, is pregnant and expected to give birth later this summer.
The new young Amur leopard will be the first of its kind at the Santa Barbara Zoo in two decades, and there are fewer than 100 of the leopards remaining in the wild. Amur leopards are the most endangered of all the big cats, so the zoo has been attempting to breed the species for several years now as part of conservation efforts.
Ajax and the new cub’s father, Kasha, were recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to become a pair as part of the Amur Leopard Species Survival Plan — a program coordinated to maintain genetic diversity of threatened and endangered species in human care.
“This is tremendously exciting news for the Santa Barbara Zoo given the critically endangered status of the Amur leopard,” Dr. Julie Barnes, the Zoo’s vice president of animal care and health, said in a news release. “Conservation is a critical part of our mission, and we’re proud to celebrate Ajax’s pregnancy with our colleagues and conservation partners, as well as the Santa Barbara community and beyond. Breeding Amur leopards is complicated and challenging, and our team has worked really hard to help Ajax get pregnant.”
This marks Ajax’s first pregnancy, and it will be the fourth litter for Kasha, who’s been at the zoo since March of 2020, just before the coronavirus closure. According to the news release, 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.
Thanks to the strong bonds the Zoo’s animal care team has developed with her, Ajax was trained to voluntarily participate in ultrasound imaging. The Zoo’s Animal Care team will continue to monitor Ajax closely, particularly during the final stages of her pregnancy, in addition to preparing for the birth.
“Now that Ajax is pregnant, the next step is working toward her successfully giving birth and rearing her cubs,” Dr. Barnes said. “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.”
The 7-year-old Ajax arrived at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2016 from the Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, England.
Her genetics are unrepresented in North American AZA zoos and aquariums, so she plays an important role in diversifying the gene pool of Amur leopards in North America for the overall health of the population.
Kasha is 11 years old and came from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. He was born in Nesles, France, at Le Parc des Felins and imported to the Brookfield Zoo in 2013, where he sired three litters in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
Amur leopards are typically solitary in nature, coming together only for breeding purposes, so introductions can be a long, slow and complicated process, the press release said. For the safety of the animals, they have to be gradually acclimated to each other’s smell and presence, which can take a long time.
The female is most receptive to sharing space with the male when she is ready to mate, but their behavior toward each other can be unpredictable. The first full-contact introduction between Ajax and Kasha took place in November 2020 and continued on and off depending on when Ajax was ready to mate.
Using hormone analysis via fecal testing, her reproductive cycle was monitored as well as determining when she was pregnant. The reproductive cycle of the Amur leopard is not well understood, so information obtained from monitoring Ajax will contribute to a better understanding of reproduction in this critically endangered species.
Ajax is sponsored by Alaia & Jax, two special members of a local anonymous family who are her Premier Foster Feeders. Kasha is generously sponsored by the Wyatt family, who are his Premier Foster Feeders.
To learn more about how to support the Zoo’s Amur leopards as an animal sponsor, visit sbzoo.pivvit.com/foster-feeder.
For updates and more on Ajax’s pregnancy, the public is encouraged to tune in to the Zoo’s social media channels (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) to follow along.