Desert Leopard Colony


Unlike many other Russian immigrants to Southern California, the one who arrived in the Antelope Valley this week had to be hauled to America, growling and spitting in anger.

The new resident is a rare Russian Amur leopard, a 14-month-old male who traveled from the Helsinki Zoo, where he was born, to the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound near Rosamond, a Kern County town west of Edwards Air Force Base.

Since his arrival Thursday, the leopard, named Gigant, has been sulking in his quarters, trying to remain out of sight inside a small shelter.

“Right now he’s pretty spooked,” said Joseph Maynard, owner of the nonprofit, private zoo that has specialized in breeding big cats from zoos around the country for the past 13 years.


The rare leopard’s handlers predicted Friday that the trauma of the move will wear off. In about a year, a female leopard from the Rotterdam Zoo will join Gigant for breeding, part of a concerted effort to increase the population of Amur leopards worldwide.

Scientists class the Amur leopard as a threatened subspecies, with only about 80 of the animals in captivity and fewer than 100 in the wild, Maynard said.

“It has been established that the subspecies is in serious danger,” he said. “We’d like to get a total of 250 reproductively viable animals in captivity worldwide by swapping them back and forth.”

Most wild Amur leopards live in a game reserve in the mountainous Amur River region near the Soviet-Manchurian border, Maynard said. Their numbers have been reduced by poaching and deforestation, he said.

Gigant now weighs about 80 pounds. He will grow to about 160 pounds and seven feet in length. Three feet of that span consist of a long tail that aids the Amur leopard’s balance in tree-top forays after prey. The subspecies is also known for its light yellow, very furry coat with black spots, Maynard said. The Amur leopard has a life span of 16 to 20 years.

The Antelope Valley’s desert climate and summer and winter temperature swings should not be a problem for the leopard because it is adaptable, experiencing both heat and cold in its native habitat, Maynard said.

“We’re the high desert,” he said. “If it were the southern deserts, now, the temperature would be a little extreme for them. . . . We don’t foresee any problem, based on our experience with similar animals.”

The compound, which has been praised for its work by zoo officials around the country, is in the process of expanding the size of its animal habitats, Maynard said.

It has experienced occasional run-ins with state regulators over permit disputes and some cages that were deemed too small.

The current population of about 40 animals encompasses 11 species, including tigers, bobcats, golden cats and leopards, Maynard said.