Mexican sanctuary prepares to re-wild endangered jaguar cubs

OXTOTIPAC, Mexico, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Lying on a shady patch of grass under the hot Mexico sun, Zazil, a female spotted jaguar stretches her limbs. Born in captivity, she is a top candidate to help boost wild populations of this magnificent, endangered species.

Reino Animal, a sprawling animal conservation park some 56 kilometres (35 miles) northeast from Mexico City, plans to move one of their female jaguars and her future cubs to its new facility next spring.

After two years without human interaction, it plans to release the cubs into the wild. Animals bred in captivity in contact with humans or those rescued from the exotic pet trade cannot be set free.

Rescue workers hope the released jaguars will breed in the wild, increasing local populations decimated by deforestation, poaching and fragmented habitats.

The largest and most powerful cat in the Americas - once deified across pre-Hispanic civilizations - is endangered. There are about 4,700 left in the wild in Mexico, according to a census published last year.

Reino Animal's jaguar sanctuary, which started operating a year ago with help from Italian chocolate maker Ferrero, currently houses seven jaguars in 5,000 square meters (53,820 square feet), including the recent 1,000 square meters expansion for its "wild breeding" project.

Some of the animals suffered abuse when they were formerly kept as exotic pets. They had their teeth filed, were declawed and had the nerves on their paws burnt to prevent the claws from growing back.

Much of Mexico's illegal wildlife trafficking takes place on social media, according to environmental activists, who have blasted what they call toothless regulation threatening species in one of the world's most biodiverse countries.

Maintaining each jaguar costs Reino Animal 40,000 pesos ($2,080) per month, paid through tourism and the partnership with the Ferrero.

"In the new section jaguars will have the wildest breeding possible," said Reino Animal director Ithiel Berrum.

($1 = 19.2170 Mexican pesos)

Reporting by Aida Pelaez-Fernandez; Editing by Sarah Morland and Bill Berkrot

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.