There is little conservation value in the 200 European Amur leopard zoo population because they are inbred and not pure-bred. All of them are descended from 13 founding cats from 45 years ago. They are not pure-bred because a leopard from another subspecies (perhaps the common leopard) was introduced into the breeding programme. The European zoo Amur leopards are moggies. There is a very small population of Amur leopards in the wild so I would presume they are inbred too and certainly in acute danger of becoming extinct.
As for the 125 Scottish wildcats in British zoos, 60 were DNA tested and almost all were found to be Scottish wildcat to domestic cat hybrids. The Scottish wildcat in zoos is also a moggie.
Then we have the rare Asiatic lion. There are about 400 in the wild in the Gir Forest, India. In Britain there are about 20 in zoos and around 90 in other European zoos. The 110 Asiatic lions in European zoos are all descended from 9 founder cats. They are, therefore, all closely related. All 110 are like cousins to each other. When they mate to create new cats for the zoos their offspring will be inbred. Inbreeding can cause: sterility, stillbirths, deformities, genetic diseases and shorter lives. The classic inbred zoo wild cat is the white tiger.
Talking about tigers, the Siberian tiger, the world’s largest natural cat, is inbred in the wild where about 400 exist with the reproductive capability of 14 tigers. Many are sterile.
In European zoos the Siberian tiger is not pure-bred. Apparently one of the founding tigers that created the current zoo population was half-Sumatran tiger that was bought from a circus. So, sadly, we have to report that, strictly speaking, when the zoo enclosure sign states, “Siberian Tiger”, it is an inadvertent misrepresentation, at least it used to be. This tiger is a moggie too.
I say inadvertently because originally people believed the above wild cat species were pure-bred and not necessarily so inbred. However, DNA testing has proved otherwise in a study by Paul O’Donoghue.
Zoo keepers are aware of the problem and they say they are working on it. But they are not being genuinely honest, are they, when they label some of their exhibits because they are implying the cats are pure-bred.
I think it is fair to say that for the wild cat species in captivity we have a genuine crisis that has been in existence for a long time and before long the current state of affairs will have to addressed properly. Wild cats in captivity don’t do well and are poorly managed.
Zoo management say they are working on rectifying these problems but there are no solutions for the Scottish wildcat, for example, because the cats in the wild are also hybrids. There are not enough Siberian tigers, Armur leopards and Asiatic lions in the wild to justify capturing them and bringing them to zoos to mate with the zoo population to widen the gene pool. In any case, the wild versions of these cats are also inbred so I don’t see how the problem can be fixed.
Pictures – originals on Flickr