The groundbreaking for the Asian leopards habitat at the San Diego Zoo. The new exhibit will be 16,500-square-foot. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo

Construction work is under way at the San Diego Zoo for a habitat for critically endangered Asian leopards, which should open by next Memorial Day weekend.

The exhibit, adjacent to Panda Trek, will be home to Amur leopards and snow leopards and will allow the zoo to boost its participation in breeding programs for the big cats.

“One of the exciting aspects of this Asian leopard exhibit is that it puts us in a position to be in breeding programs for all five of the big cat species,” said Stacey Johnson, director of collections for San Diego Zoo Global.

There are only around 40 Amur leopards in the wild, making it the most endangered of the big cats. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo

“We’re breeding lions and tigers at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and we’ll be set up to have jaguars, Amur leopards and snow leopards in breeding groups here at the San Diego Zoo,” she said.

The 16,500-square-foot habitat will include 5,500 square feet of multi- level living space with rock outcroppings, slopes with felled trees and shrubs, and other features to encourage natural behaviors.

The habitat can be sectioned off into four separate exhibits, depending on animal care needs. The leopards will be able to use passageways to cross from one exhibit to another.

Zoo officials said they hope to use one of the sections as a nursery for a mother and her cubs, with a glass viewing area for guests.

More than 1,000 donors contributed the $3 million needed to build the habitat designed specifically for large cats, according to the zoo. It’s one of the first steps in moving animals out of aging exhibits that have gone through several upgrades over the years.

According to the zoo, only around 40 Amur leopards are believed to remain in their native habitat of southern Russia and northern China. There are about 300 of them in zoos around the world, making it the most critically endangered big cat on the planet.

The home range of snow leopards is the cold, rugged mountains of central Asia. It is estimated that just 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild.

— City News Service

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