Rescuing Leo the Snow Leopard

How an orphaned snow leopard cub found loving care from people across the globe

How an Orphaned Cub Found Loving Care From People Across the Globe

Every single

snow leopard

is important

to the future.

Published October 22, 2014

In 2005, a passing herder noticed a tiny snow leopard cub, helpless and alone on the mountainside. The cub's mother was gone, likely killed by a hunter in the steep mountains of Pakistan.

The man decided to take the orphan home and raise it. But after a week, the herder realized the snow leopard baby wasn't healthy and that he didn't know how to feed it. The World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P) heard about the cub and sent a staffer to the herder’s remote village. The situation was more urgent than just one animal in danger; snow leopards are an endangered species.

In addition to being hunted for their beautiful, thick coats, the wild cats have lost much of their natural prey, such as wild mountain goats and sheep, to hunters. That has forced the normally reclusive cats to hunt livestock, which can get them shot by angry herders. The world population of snow leopards in their natural range—high mountains in Central Asia—has dropped to between 3,500 and 7,500. In Pakistan only about 200 to 420 are left. The people at the WWF-P didn't want to lose another.

Without its mother, the cub wouldn’t be able to learn survival skills like hunting and could never be released back into the wild. So, after a veterinary checkup, the young cat was sent to a national park. 

The cub was placed in the care of Kamal-ud-din, a wildlife keeper who often raised wild baby animals. Kamal named the cub Leo, because if you growl leo repeatedly, it sounds similar to a mother snow leopard's call to its young.

As Leo grew, it became clear that he needed a new, long-term home. This time, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) would come to Leo’s rescue. The organization dispatched a team that brought Leo from Pakistan to the Bronx Zoo, a facility that WCS operates in New York City. Leo quickly warmed up to his new home with the help of his new keepers.

In 2013, Leo’s first cub was born at the Bronx Zoo. “Leo—and his new cub—are living proof of the importance, power, and significance of saving wildlife,” says WCS Asia Program deputy director Peter Zahler. “Leo has helped bring people together from around the world in an effort to save this iconic animal, and WCS is committed to working with our partners in Pakistan to help save snow leopards in the wild.”

This story is an update to the "Snow Leopard Rescue" article written by Scott Elder in the December 2007/January 2008 issue of National Geographic Kids magazine.