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3. Amur Leopard
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Wild pig species, or swine, have long been native to the Old World. Many species are found across Europe, Africa and Asia including the common Warthog, the Bearded Pig, the Red River hog and the Warty pigs. More than a dozen of these mammals are resident to a variety of natural habitats throughout the world, but perhaps the pig with the most striking appearance is the animal known as the Babirusa.
The Babirusa is found on the small tropical Indonesian island of Sulawesi and a few nearby surrounding islands of the archipelago.
Typically dull grey in color with very little hair, adult males stand 2 to 3 feet tall and can weigh up to 220 pounds. With a barrel-shaped body and thin long legs, this species of wild pig is best known for its bizarre looking face that includes 4 visible tusks including two that grow out of the top of their mouth penetrating the skin.
These tusks are actually canine teeth which begin growing down but when the male Babirusa is around 6 months old, the teeth rotate 180 and eventually pierce the skin just below their eyes. These specialized teeth continue to grow and curve back toward the animal’s head and often resemble antlers more than they do tusks, giving the animal its native name Babirura – which translates to “pig-deer.”
The Babirusa is the only mammal with vertically growing upper canine teeth. The true purpose of these curving tusks is unknown to researchers. Found only on the males, the tusks have inspired many legends and beliefs over time including the idea they were used to hang silently from trees until a female passed by. It was thought they are used to clear brush for females and young – who lack the upper protruding tusks – however females often live in groups and travel without males – who remain primarily solitary – this function seems unlikely.
Some people believed the tusks were used in battles between males, however when male Babirusa do fight over territory or when competing for a mate – they actually don’t utilize their tusks normally but similar to a kangaroo, the male Babirusa will stand upright on their hind legs and “box” with their front hooves and shove each other with their shoulders. The protruding tusks, however, may offer some protection for the animal’s eyes.
Like most pigs, the Babirusa’s canines will continue to grow their entire lives. Usually the teeth are worn down through natural behaviors such as eating, fighting, and each pair of lower and bottom teeth wearing on each other. In the case of the Babirusa however, they must wear down the lower teeth and even sharpen them on by rubbing against tree trunks and rocks. The upper tusks continue to grow and curve back toward the skull. Though they can often be fragile and easily broken, in some instances the upper tusks may eventually penetrate the skull and killing the animal.
Babirusa spend the majority of the day roaming and foraging throughout the forest. Little is known about this shy, forest-dwelling pig’s habits in the wild. Based on studies of animals in managed care, Babirusa appear to be mostly diurnal—active during the day and sleeping at night. When not foraging, they may wallow in the mud or just lie down and rest during the heat of the day.
Babirusas are considered a social species and groups of more than 10 have been observed in their native rainforest habitats, especially around water, communal wallowing areas and salt licks. They are good swimmers and have been observed to cover long distances in the water including wide rivers and parts of the Indonesian ocean waters to reach other nearby islands.
Like other swine species, Babirusa possess that signature pig snout. Though they are excellent at detecting smells and scents, the long slender snout of the Babirusa does not appear to be as specialized as other pig species. Babirusa do not appear to use its snout to root for food. Though they are omnivores, they tend to be more specialized feeders, primarily eating foliage, fallen fruit, fungi and insect larvae. They will sometimes stand on their hind legs to feed on higher leaves on bushes and trees.
Babirusa also possess a complex, two-chambered stomachs, resembling the digestive systems of sheep and other ruminants rather than those found in other swine.
Unlike other wild pigs, they also give birth to rather small litters, usually 1 or 2 piglets are born at a time. These young are not marked with stripes like many other swine species and they may begin to leave the ‘nest’ and to sample solid food as early as 10 days of age. Babirusa may live up to 24 years in human care, but the age in the wild they live to be about 10 years old.
Though the appearance of the Babirusa is unique, there are actually three subspecies. These subspecies have different hair covering, hair color, tusk and body sizes. In addition to many of their non-traditional pig-like characteristics, some fossil studies have now led scientists to believe that the Babirusa may be more closely related to hippopotamuses than pigs.
Often described as a creature composed by assembling parts of at least 6 other animals, the mountainous regions of India, Bhutan and China are home to a rather interesting member of the bovid family.
Sometimes known as a goat antelope, gnu goat, a goat ox, and even antelope cow. This stocky, large-bodied, cow-like ungulate may resemble a less-shaggy musk ox but is more closely related to wild sheep and is most commonly known as the Takin.
With eyes positioned high on its large head, Takins have strong and stout limbs with shoulders sitting higher than its hips. Though males are usually larger, both sexes have crescent-shaped horns. Males may grow up to 7 feet long and the largest animals may weigh close to 800 pounds.
They possess a long and often shaggy coat with a mane-like fringe on the side of their body and under the throat. A distinguishing feature is their long looking face with a broad and bare nasal area, sometimes compared to that of a moose.
Takin coloration varies by habitat and subspecies from light yellow to reddish brown. There are four subspecies of Takin. The Bhutan, Mishmi, the Sichuan (or Tibetan) and the Shaanxi Takin also known as the Golden Takin, The Golden Takins have a yellowish colored coat with a black muzzle. This species of Takin is often cited as a possible source of the famed Golden Fleece referenced in Greek mythology.
The Takin’s horns, hooves and nostrils are described as shiny black. Like goats, the Takin’s hooves make them excellent climbers and they are able to move nimbly among rocky and steep terrain. They may jump up to 6 feet from a standing position. When sleeping or sitting, Takin often position themselves with their front feet extended and their head resting atop their body similar to a dog.
Like the Giant Panda, the Sichuan Takin inhabits the steep, rocky mountain forests of Tibet, northern Myanmar, and central China. Sichuan Takins are considered a national treasure in China, where they have the highest legal protection status. Takin are also the national animal of the Kingdom of Bhutan.
They feed on a variety of grasses, forbs and leaves of shrubs and trees. More than 100 different plant varieties make up some Takin’s diets. Takins have the unique ability to stand upright on their hind legs, so they can easily reach the leaves of taller trees. They have also been known to use their powerful bodies to push over small trees.
Takin forage in early morning and late afternoon, and regularly visit salt-licks – which is believed to help neutralize some plant toxins the animals may consume. Though the Sichuan Takin occupy habitat regions where bamboo is readily available they appear to consume very little.
Takin live in small herds made up of females, younger males, and offspring. Older males are often solitary. Takins seasonally migrate to preferred habitats. During spring and early summer months, they begin to gather in large herds of up to 100 animals at the highest altitudes of the tree line. Takin can survive at altitudes up to 12,000 feet above sea level.
Takins possess enlarged sinus cavities in side their large noses. This allows the frigid mountain air to warm before it reaches the lungs. Without this adaptation, takins would lose a large amount of body heat just by breathing.
Although Takins have no skin glands, their skin secretes an oily, bitter-tasting substance that acts as a natural raincoat in storms and fog. Streaks of this oily stuff can be seen where Takins rub. They are also known to spray themselves with urine. Pheromones in the urine may possibly help with identification and sexual status.
Due to their large, powerful bodies and impressive horns, Takins have few natural enemies other than bears, wolves, leopards, and dholes. Human hunters cause most Takin deaths. They are generally slow moving but can react quickly if angered or frightened. When disturbed, individuals will give a ‘cough’ alarm call and the herd will retreat into thick bamboo thickets and lie on the ground for camouflage.
The San Diego Zoo was the first to exhibit Sichuan takins in North America. Two females were given to the accredited facility as a gift from China in 1987. A male arrived the following year. The first Sichuan takin born outside of China was born at the San Diego Zoo in 1989.
In addition to Sichuan takins, the San Diego Zoo also had a breeding herd of Mishmi takins for many years, and the first Mishmi Takin born in the New World occured in 1993. Most Takins now living at other zoos in North America came from San Diego herds.
Currently listed as an IUCN Vulnerable Species, Takins are a featured animal in the Species Survival Plan through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They can be seen at a few accredited North American facilities including an active breeding herd that resides at The Wilds facility in central Ohio.
Silent, sleek and strong. Leopards are one of nature’s largest and most powerful hunters. Normally associated with grasslands of Africa and Asia, one species is known as a deadly hunter of the deep forest found along one of the world’s longest rivers.
The Amur River region is found along the Northern China and Far East Russian border but unfortunately very few of these impressive predators remain.
Amur Leopards are one of the most endangered cats in the world. Classified as Critically Endangered, fewer than 100 Amur Leopards exists in the wild – some estimates state even fewer than 30 may actually still remain in their native habitats.
The Amur Leopard is in the genus Panthera with the other big cats like Jaguars, Tigers and Lions. There are seven recognized subspecies of Leopard: The African, Anatolian, Barbary, Javan, Arabian, Zanzibar and the Amur. There is a debate as to how many subspecies of leopard exists, more than 20 are listed, but the Amur Leopard has been found to be genetically distinct from all other leopards.
Adapted to cold climates, Amur Leopards have long, powerful legs, which are a bit longer than other leopard species, help them move through the snow as well as maneuver through the trees of the forest. Their long, thick fur – distinctive of this species as well – is generally light in the winter and reddish-yellow in the summer.
Large, dark spots form rosettes on their shoulders, legs, back, sides, and haunches, while their head, throat, and chest have small black spots. The Amur Leopard, sometimes known as the Russian or Manchurian Leopard, have more widely spaced spots with thick rosettes on their coats than most Leopard species.
Similar to other leopards, the Amur leopard can run at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour. This amazing animal has been reported to leap more than 19 feet horizontally and up to 10 feet vertically. Experts say that pound for pound, leopards are the strongest of all cats. An Amur leopard can lift a 150-pound deer in its jaws to a branch 15 feet in the air.
Males may weigh between 70 and 100 pounds, though some larger Amur leopards may weigh as much as 150 pounds. They may stand more than 2 feet tall at the shoulders.
With their camouflaged coat and padded paws, leopards are ambush predators – able to sneak up on their prey. The leopard’s tongue has tiny hooks, called denticles, which are used to scrape the meat off of the bones of their prey. Amur Leopards feed primarily on small deer species as well as wild boar, raccoon dogs, birds and invertebrates. They often carry their kills high into a tree to avoid competing predators in their habitats. Leopards will often eat up to 25 percent of their body weight at a time, one animal carcass may feed an adult leopard nearly a week.
Amur Leopards prefer to live and hunt alone. They may maintain and defend a territory of up to 60 square miles. Several males may follow and fight over females in their home range. In some cases, it has been reported that Amur Leopard males with stay with a female after mating and may even help with rearing the young.
Females first breed at an age of 3-4 years. After a gestation period of around 12 weeks, cubs are born in litters of 1-4 individuals, with an average litter size of just over 2. The cubs stay with their mother for up to two years before becoming fully independent. The average lifespan for the Amur Leopard in the wild is 10 to 15 years, in managed care they may live up to 20 years.
Amur Leopards are teetering on the brink of extinction. Unfortunately, more than 80% of the leopards habitat disappeared in a 13 year period between 1970 and 1983 due to logging, forest fires and land conversion for farming.
The Amur Leopard is poached for its highly prized beautiful fur and a reduction in prey in their homelands have also led to their population decline. This reduction in numbers has also increased the amount of inbreeding that has occured in the species leading to lower reproductive rates.
In 2012, the government of Russia declared a new protected area called the Land of the Leopard National Park. Extending nearly 650,000 acres it includes all of the Amur leopard’s breeding areas and about 60 percent of the animals remaining habitat. The park is also home to 10 endangered Amur tigers.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan hopes to help with the Amur Leopard’s critically endangered status as well. Many of the AZA’s accredited facilities, such as Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, have been able to successfully breed these incredible cats and through proper management also help ensure a genetically diverse line of Amur Leopards for the future.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens
Saint Louis Zoo
San Diego Zoo
Utah’s Hogle Zoo
White Oak Conservation
World Wildlife Fund
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