Seven critically endangered Arabian leopards have been born in Saudi Arabia this year.
The births have all happened at the Conservation Breeding Centre in Taif, the Royal Commission for AlUla announced.
It brings the total number of leopards at the centre to 27, almost doubling the original 14 from when the project started in 2020.
"This is another important milestone in our ongoing efforts to conserve the species by increasing the population each year to reach our ultimate goal of reintroducing leopards back into the wilds of AlUla and broader Arabia," said centre manager Abdulaziz Alenzy.
The Arabian leopard is considered critically endangered, with estimates of fewer than 200 left in the wild between Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Habitat loss and poaching are blamed for their demise.
Earlier this year, the commission created a fund with a $25 million endowment to promote conservation efforts and signed a 10-year, $20 million agreement with American organisation Panthera to support its efforts.
Of the new cubs, five are being raised by their mothers at the centre without any additional care from staff, who keep their distance to ensure a strong maternal bond, he said. The remaining two cubs are being hand-reared by staff after they were abandoned by their mother after giving birth.
The cubs will be hand-reared by a dedicated staff member who stays with them around the clock, sleeping near them and feeding them every two hours or so, following strict conservation guidelines.
"It is better if the mother bonds to her cub and raises it naturally," Alenzy explained. "But sometimes, often with new mothers, there is a chance she might abandon her cub due to a lack of experience. She does not know how to feed the youngster.
"In the wild, she could leave it for dead. Obviously, as the Arabian Leopard is such an important subspecies and critically endangered animal, within our facility we take the decision to step in.
“Cubs that are hand-reared are just as important as those raised by their mothers. But after being hand-reared they need to be introduced back to the other leopards, which requires special training and lots of patience.
"After five to six weeks, we place them back in the enclosure for a few hours each day to reintegrate them. We also move them from milk to solid food – it can be a demanding process, but it shows how important it is to save each cub.”
The team at the centre monitor the leopards 24/7 via CCTV cameras, he added.