The magnificent Amur leopard is one of Korkeasaari’s stars.Helsinki Zoo helps to preserve threatened wild animals from around the world, with a focus on species well adapted to wintry conditions.

With its picturesque location on the island of Korkeasaari, just a short boat or bus trip from the city centre, Helsinki Zoo is one of the city’s top year-round tourist attractions, especially for families. These days the zoo is increasingly focusing its animal collections on helping to conserve species threatened by extinction in the wild.

“It’s important to attract visitors, but our primary goals are nature conservation and education,” says animal curator Kirsi Pynnönen.

“Because we’re here on this rocky island location with a long, cold, snowy winter, we specialise in northern and mountain species that we can keep outdoors in suitable enclosures all year round.”

For this reason, crowd-pleasing animals that would be more at home in the warm, open savannahs of Africa are no longer brought to Korkeasaari. Instead the zoo provides a refuge for many attractive arctic, alpine and steppe species including bears, wolverines, Bactrian camels, impressive northern owls, wild reindeer, bison and loveable red pandas.

When the island is covered with snow, zoo-goers can enjoy seeing these animals in their natural element.

A sorry tiger’s tale

Genetic analysis recently revealed that Helsinki’s male tiger is not a pure-bred Amur tiger, but a Bengal tiger hybrid.

The unfortunate half-breed consequently had to be castrated, under sedation, with his dangerous paws in rubber boots to give additional reassurance to an understandably nervous zoo vet. Fortunately, he remains one of the zoo’s main attractions – in spite of reduced interest from the thoroughbred female Amur tiger in the neighbouring enclosure.

Northern stars

Korkeasaari’s stars include magnificent Amur leopards and Amur tigers – two big cats that are vanishing from their wild habitat in the Russian-Chinese borderlands of the Far East. “There are only about 40 Amur leopards left in the wild, and they are notoriously difficult to breed in zoos, but over the years we’ve managed to breed about 20. This is a sure sign that we’re looking after them well,” says Pynnönen.

Pynnönen explains that captive breeding programmes for endangered species are run in close collaboration with other zoos, to make sure that zoo populations do not become inbred. “One of our male Amur leopards will soon be sent to Rotterdam to mate with a female,” she adds.

The international Amur leopard breeding programme is coordinated in London, aiming to provide animals that can be sent to their native regions for acclimatisation in semi-wild conditions before eventually being released.

Korkeasaari bears don’t mind the freezing weather....

Fran Weaver
Helsinki Times

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