A 14-month-old snow leopard born at the Chattanooga Zoo will be relocated to a new and expanded big cat exhibition area at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens in mid-March as part of the Species Survival Plan.
Renji, the female snow leopard cub born against all odds to Czar and Kasimir while in captivity in Chattanooga, will be paired with a slightly younger male, 10-month-old Nubo. Renji’s parents will stay in Chattanooga with the hopes that they continue to breed, officials said.
The Species Survival Plan (SSP) manages specific and typically threatened or endangered species populations that are living at accredited zoos and aquariums that are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Chattanooga Zoo currently has seven animals under the SSP, including the snow leopards.
Renji’s new home at the second-oldest zoo in the United States is still under construction, with plans to open this summer. This will give her time to get to know her new beau before zookeepers in Cincinnati present the new couple to the public.
“Hopefully, they will get along. They will probably give them about eight months to get adjusted to each other,” Marisa Ogles, marketing and communications director for the zoo, said.
According to the Snow Leopard Trust, an SSP conservation partner of the Chattanooga Zoo, mating season for snow leopards is now, between January and mid-March. Female snow leopards are pregnant for 93 to 110 days, and the cubs, usually just two or three to a litter, are born in June or July.
Renji’s birth in Chattanooga was considered somewhat of a “miracle” last year, officials said, because snow leopard births in captivity are extremely rare. Only 30 percent of cubs survive the birthing process.
Her survival has now provided the breeding program with the hope of adding more cubs to a dwindling and endangered population.
Matchmaking for Renji and Nubo was determined by officials with SSP, according to Ogles.
“They decide who goes where. Since snow leopards are really in danger, they want to pair as many as possible to have as many babies as possible,” Ogles said.
If everything goes well during courtship this summer, Ogles said Renji could be pregnant this time next year.
Until then, Renji will have plenty of time to enjoy her huge new home, which will be a part of the expanded Cat Canyon at the Cincinnati Zoo that connects the “night hunters” exhibit of vampire bats, owls, and large and small cats with the cougar, tiger, and new snow leopard exhibit areas.
Although snow leopards are typically solitary animals, Renji will have no shortage of visitors since the location receives more than 1.2 million people annually, according to its website.
When the time comes, Renji’s cubs will also likely be placed with potential mates from other zoos where breeding is most possible. Because there is no other male besides her own father in Chattanooga for Renji or any of her female cubs to mate with, it is unlikely they will ever return to the Chattanooga Zoo, according to Ogles.
There are only 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards left in the wild today, according to Chattanooga Zoo President and CEO Darde Long.
There are several reasons why the wild snow leopards are being threatened today, according to the Snow Leopard Trust, including poaching, harvesting for medicine and poisoning by sheepherders protecting their livestock.
“The Chattanooga Zoo feels honored to be able to make such a huge contribution toward the conservation of the species,” Long said.
Anyone who wants to see Renji before she departs Chattanooga has until the week of March 12, zoo officials said. She is scheduled to leave sometime between March 12 and 16.