Pictures of Endangered Clouded Leopards Born at National Zoo Facility


Smithsonian’s National Zoo photo by Lisa Ware

An endangered clouded leopard at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Conservation & Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, gave birth to a genetically valuable litter of two cubs today. They are the first such births at the special breeding facility in 16 years.

“Staff has been on pregnancy watch of the two-and-a-half year-old clouded leopard ‘Jao Chu’ (JOW-chew) for five days. She gave birth to the litter early Tuesday morning,” said a zoo news release.

This is Jao Chu’s first litter. She and the cubs’ father, two-and-a-half year-old “Hannibal,” were born in Thailand in a collaborative research program with the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand. The pairing of Jao Chu and Hannibal and the resultant offspring infuses precious genes into the captive population of clouded leopards.

The cubs’ sex will not be known until the first veterinary exam, the zoo said. They are being hand raised by zoo staff to increase their chances of survival.

“Due to deforestation and hunting, clouded leopards are vulnerable to extinction. National Zoo scientist Dr. JoGayle Howard and colleagues are aggressively working toward saving this species from decline,” the statement added.


Smithsonian’s National Zoo photo by Lisa Ware


The Zoo has been working with clouded leopards at the Conservation & Research Center since 1978, with the goal of creating a genetically diverse population. In the past 30 years, more than 70 clouded leopards have been born at the Zoo’s research facility in Virginia, with the last litter born in 1993.

Breeding clouded leopards in captivity has been a challenge, primarily due to male aggression, decreased breeding activity between paired animals, and high cub mortality, the zoo said.

In 2002, the National Zoo in collaboration with the Nashville Zoo and the Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plan created the Thailand Clouded Leopard Consortium — the largest population of confiscated clouded leopards in Southeast Asia.

The species survival plan oversees clouded leopard populations in zoos worldwide, and makes breeding recommendations for potential pairs based on the genetics of each cat.

(Watch a National Geographic video about this breeding progam below.)


Smithsonian’s National Zoo photo by Lisa Ware

To date, the Thailand Clouded Leopard Consortium has produced 32 surviving cubs. The National Zoo’s program at the Front Royal facility is the only one of its kind combining breeding with scientific research.

“For example, scientists still do not know why male clouded leopards attack their possible mates,” the zoo said. “but several graduate students at the National Zoo are studying the males’ behavior — one student plans to test anti-anxiety drugs used in humans and domestic cats in an attempt to suppress male aggression.”

Clouded leopard breeding video by National Geographic

Howard and colleagues have learned how to reduce the risk of fatal attacks by hand-rearing cubs for socialization and also introducing males to their mates when they are six months old, allowing the pair to grow up together. “Hannibal and Jao Chu, the only compatible pair of clouded leopards at CRC, are proof that these techniques work,” the zoo said in its statement.

Little is known about clouded leopards. They are cats native to Southeast Asia and parts of China in a habitat that ranges from dense tropical evergreen forests to drier forests if there is suitable prey.

They are the smallest of the big cats, weighing 30 to 50 pounds and measuring about five feet long. Their short legs, large paws, and long tail (accounts for half their length) help them balance on small branches, and their flexible ankles allow them to run down trees headfirst.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo photo by Lisa Ware



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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn