The snow leopard is a handsome cat with fur that cleverly blends in with the mountains of its native Tibet. Camouflaged against the snowy terrain, the leopard has been able for thousands of years to sneak up on ibex and marmots. Nothing much bothered the snow leopard . . . until humans came along looking for still another kind of fur coat.
Today the snow leopard is one of the world's 700 endangered species. Like the white rhino, the giant panda and the orangutan, its numbers have become so small and its habitat so threatened that it was feared the species would become extinct.You can see a snow leopard and several other endangered species at Salt Lake's Hogle Zoo, and zoo officials hope that in celebration of national zoo and aquarium month you will. Along with other facilities nationwide, Hogle Zoo will be highlighting the cultural, recreational, educational and, especially, the conservation benefits of zoos.
With very little "wild" left for many species of wildlife, zoos have stepped in to orchestrate their survival. About 10 years ago, the nation's zoos organized the Captive Self-Sustaining Program to coordinate the breeding programs of 38 targeted animals.
"It's sort of a wildlife triage," explains Rich Hendron, education coordinator for Hogle Zoo.
At zoos like Hogle, animals like the snow leopard are bred only to mates that are approved through the International Species Inventory System (IBIS). In this way, zoos know that they are not, for example, in-breeding a father and a daughter, or animals from weak stock.
Before such careful record-keeping was begun, some animals - certain tigers for example - became so in-bred that they developed crossed eyes and low fertility rates. In fact, Hogle Zoo's tigers are from this weaker stock and are thus ineligible for the ISIS breeding program.
Like other zoos participating in the Captive Self-Sustaining Program, Hogle sometimes lends or sells its qualified animals to other zoos that need good breeding stock.
When the zoo population of a particular endangered species gets large enough - about 250 of any one animal - the ISIS cautions zoos to stop breeding them.
That doesn't mean that the animal is no longer endangered, however. "They will probably always remain endangered," says Hogle Zoo assistant director Gene Schreiber, because their habitat in the wild is no longer available to them.
The snow leopard's skulking grounds in Tibet, for example, have been diminished by deforestation, mining and the encroachment of houses. The golden lion tamarin's home in the Amazon has been chopped down - at the rate of 50 acres an hour - so that people can mine bauxite for the world's consumption of aluminum soda cans.
At Hogle Zoo, endangered species are identified by a "vanishing animal" sign and an antelope's skull.
In addition to the zoo's efforts to replenish the supply of endangered animals, individuals can take their own steps to help the threatened species, notes Hendron.
"Don't buy animals that have been taken from the wild," he urges. "When you want to purchase a pet, make sure the animal has been raised in captivity. Ask the people at the pet store to show proof." He also cautions against buying products make of wild animals.
And finally, concerned zoo-goers can "adopt" one of Hogle's animals. Those who elect to adopt an animal are assessed an annual charge for food costs. Fees may range from $15 a year for a small bird to $3,000 per year for a gorilla or leopard.