In remote parts of the barren Judean Desert, a subspecies of leopard once thought to be nearly extinct is making a slow but steady comeback under the protection of Israel's Nature Reserves Authority.

It is estimated that 25 live in a reserve covering about 770 square miles. At that, the reserve is probably at its maximum leopard capacity because animals of each sex maintain exclusive control over vast nonoverlapping territories.

The animals look much like their African cousins but are smaller and lighter in color, presumably for better camouflage in the desert. Like African leopards they belong to the species Panthera pardus but are in a subspecies called jarvissi.

Unlike African leopards, however, the Judean leopard has a different family structure. Whereas male African leopards play no role in rearing the young, male Judean leopards care for the cubs while the mothers go off in search of food, for up to 10 days at a time.

The difference is probably a result of food availability. African leopards live in forests rich with prey; females need never go far to feed. Judean leopards live in treeless deserts and must travel to find such prey as ibexes, a desert antelope and hyraxes, small, rabbit-sized creatures