A critically-endangered leopard cub born in Scotland could be released into the wild in Russia as a world first.
News that a cub had been born at the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie was confirmed by observing the behaviour of the mother, Arina, who had become increasingly secretive.
It is hoped the cat will be moved to Russia in future as part of conservation efforts and would be among only 100 which remain in the wild.
If successful, it would be the first ever reintroduction to the wild of a critically-endangered Amur leopard.
Douglas Richardson, head of living collections, said: “Our approach to managing this highly-threatened cat is globally unique, with the zoo and conservation community watching what we do with a view to following our lead.
“Being able to send captive-bred Amur leopards back to a part of their historic wild range in Russia would represent an extraordinary conservation success.
“Although progress has been made in recent years, habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans remain threats to the Amur leopard, with only around 100 remaining in the wild.
“We have the only specially-designed off-show breeding habitat in the zoo world, which ensures minimal interaction with humans and no contact with our visitors.”
The only sighting of the cub has been made through camera traps and it has been kept away from humans in the complex for welfare reasons.
“Initially we confirmed the birth by observing the behaviour of the mother, as Arina had become increasingly secretive,” said Mr Richardson.
“We have since heard cub vocalisations and one of our keepers caught a fleeting glimpse of Arina moving a cub from a distance”.
The pen has been designed specifically to breed Amur leopards and maximise the possibility of them being released into the wild.
With minimal human contact, it is not yet known if more than one cub has been born.
The park’s breeding complex was completed last year and funded by an anonymous donation.
It is expected the gender of the cub will be confirmed when it has its first physical check-up at about three months old.
Freddo, the male Amur leopard, was born in Tallinn Zoo in Estonia and the female, Arina, was born at Twycross Zoo in the Midlands