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Rare Amur Leopard Cubs Born in UK Zoo [VIDEO]

Jul 24, 2014 11:00 AM EDT

A pair of rare Amur leopards, said to be the rarest big cats in the world, were born in the UK's Twycross Zoo, officials announced Wednesday.

Twycross Zoo, located in Leicestershire, said its new cubs were born in June and could one day be reintroduced into the wild - a significant step in helping this endangered species recover.

There are only about 50 wild Amur leopards in China and south-eastern Russia, but they are close to extinction because of poaching and habitat loss - including illegal logging, forest clearance and land development.

And with disease and in-breeding among such a small population, the long-term survival of this species is at risk.

The zoo said it delayed announcing the birth of these rare cubs for fear that they would not survive. However, the unnamed leopards seem to be healthy and doing well.

"We are hopeful that these UK-born babies will one day be part of wider conservation plans for the reintroduction of the species to the wild," Dr. Charlotte MacDonald, Head of Life Sciences at Twycross Zoo, said in a news release.

Though, she adds that any reintroduction would likely not take place for several years and only after negotiation with the Russian government.

There are thought to be 200 to 300 Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis) in captivity, according to BBC News. But breeding programs like the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP), of which Twycross is a member, are dedicated to making their numbers grow and are "fundamental" to their survival.

"We don't know how many of the Amur leopards remaining in the wild are young or old, male or female," Dr. John Lewis, veterinary advisor to the Amur leopard European captive breeding programme, said in the release.

"So if the population is skewed towards too many males, or too many older individuals, this can impact the species' chances of breeding successfully," he said.

The cubs are on display to the public as of Wednesday, June 23.

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