BLINKING and yawning their way into the world, these two new arrivals may play a crucial role in the survival of their critically endangered species.

Snow Leopards are extremely rare.  The cubs are the first ever to be born in the North of England.

Conservationists will determine whether the youngsters at Lakeland Wildlife Oasis near Milnthorpe should eventually be introduced to the Himalayan region, where the beautiful creatures make their natural home.


Jo and Dave Marsden, who run the wildlife charity in South Cumbria, are delighted that Tara and Pavan, their breeding pair of leopards, felt comfortable enough in their enclosure to have young.

David said: "We knew she was pregnant, we just held our breath that it all went to plan. Everyone's really excited, the cubs have their eyes open now."

Visitors over the summer holiday will be able to see the new cubs out and about.

But at the moment they're sticking close to mum and being given maximum privacy.

Only Dave's wife Jo and Head Keeper Debs Hollingsworth have so far been able to see the cubs since they were born on May 25.

It could be several weeks before it is known whether they are male or female and they can be named.

Dave said: "We've been making sure they're absolutely fine with as little disturbance as possible. We won't separate them from their mum for a while yet, although she's beginning to leave them alone a little bit more now.

"It's extremely rare to have Snow Leopards born in England, these are the first ones ever in the North.

"Not many places keep them and there are so few in captivity. It's a very small gene pool. There might only be 20 or 30 snow leopards in the UK and most of those are at the Cat Survival Trust, which is not open to the public."

The trust was where the male leopard, Pavan, came to Cumbria from. His mate Tara came from a zoo in Germany. The pair were put together in a closely monitored effort to ensure healthy young.

Snow Leopards are under extreme threat of extinction in the wild. Estimates vary, but only about 2,000 are thought to be in existence and even that is a very broad estimate.

David said: "A lot of the wild ones are in unstable environments where their habitat is threatened. They're in 13 different countries, centred mainly in the Himalayas. That makes them extremely difficult to count.

"They are the most seriously at risk of all the big cats. There is a programme to introduce them to the wild but it will be decided by the International Stud Book Keeper."

Dr Terry Moore, who runs the Cat Survival Trust in Hertfordshire, said: "Snow Leopards are under immense pressure because the snow line where they live is receding and people are moving into their habitat.

"They're being killed for their pelts and also their bones are used in the Chinese medicine industry.

"Many Snow Leopards live in isolated groups that no longer have contact with other groups with which to breed. That means their genetic diversity is being affected.

"Having any born in captivity is very important. It's still a long way off but we are doing studies that could lead to some being reintroduced.

"Zoos are the modern-day ark and could play a part in saving so many species."

Whether Lakeland Wildlife Oasis's new Snow Leopard cubs have a significant evolutionary role to play remains to be seen.

For the moment they're being nurtured by their mum before venturing outside to become, at least for a short while, the animal charity's star attractions.