Clouded leopards are a highly endangered wild cat from Southeast Asia. They are also notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. With the help of an international consortium of zoos in both the United States and Thailand, members of the Clouded Leopard Project are working to develop a breeding program to increase the numbers and revitalize the demographics of the tiny population. 

After 20 years of research, animal specialists believe they have finally unlocked the mystery of clouded leopard breeding, and three squealing, squeaking bundles of fur at the Nashville Zoo in Tennessee provide the latest proof of their success.

Luk, which means "light" in Thai, Chet or "brother," and Sita, named for the Hindu goddess of womanhood, were born on May 30th. The nearly 2-month-old clouded leopard cubs roll over and over, pouncing on one another's tails and occasionally nipping each other's ears, oblivious to how very special they are.

"They are very interactive," says Connie Philipp, the zoo's director of animal collections, adding with a laugh, "I hate to use the word cute, but they are very cute."

They are also acting like typical clouded leopards. "They are a tree-dwelling species, so as a result, they don't mind being picked up and brought up to heights. They love to start climbing on things. They can get up, but they can't get down yet, so you've got to keep an eye on that."

An international effort to save clouded leopards

The cubs' parents - Arun and Jing Jai - were one of two pairs of cats that came to the United States last year from the Clouded Leopard breeding project in Thailand, to diversify the U.S. genetic pool. The other pair went to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Both females gave birth this spring, so their cubs will introduce new genes into the American population for the first time in 20 years.

Nashville Zoo Mammal Curator Karen Rice worked with Arun and Jing Jai before they left Thailand. She points to several characteristics that set these wild cats apart from others.

"They're excellent climbers. They can climb straight up a tree and then come straight down head first, which most cats cannot do. They can hang from a branch by their back feet. Their back feet are jointed so they can twist."

There are about 30 of the cats at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand and a few dozen more at zoos in Vietnam, Cambodia, the United States and Europe. But because they are extremely secretive in the wild, no one knows exactly how many clouded leopards are left. Instead, population is estimated from the number of pelts found on the black market.

Connie Philipp says due to their shy nature, almost everything known about the spotted cats comes from observing them in captivity, and that is one reason the Nashville Zoo is hand-rearing the newborn cubs.

"They do tend to be very secretive and nervous by nature, but by hand-rearing them, they can handle pretty much anything that comes their way. And we create these exhibits where they look calm and relaxed and people can come and see them in that state."

In the wild, clouded leopards live solitary lives, coming together only to breed. Forcing the cats together in captivity has had some dire consequences for the females, who have been seriously injured and even killed by the aggressive males. However, Karen Rice says program coordinators have figured out how to eliminate that problem: Introduce them young.

"If they grow up together, they don't seem to have the aggression issues, but it doesn't seem to bother them," she explains. "They will still breed. It doesn't create a familiarity where they won't breed. That's what we're trying to do, pair up young cats as young as we can and create those strong bonds early, and it seems to be working."

Restoring the species in captivity

The goal of the Clouded Leopard Project both in Thailand and the United States is to increase the cat's population and create as much genetic diversity as possible. Connie Philipp says there are no plans to release animals back into the wild.

"We realized many years ago the challenges - that the habitat just doesn't exist anymore and we really do need to deal with the cultures in those areas to make a difference. We always try to work with the country of origin when we work with endangered species, because if we don't make differences there, we don't make major differences here in what we're doing in the U.S.

"So really, at this point, it's just about doing what we can to save the species, realizing it's going to be a captive situation and doing what we can to make a difference so that, who knows, maybe one decade, reintroduction will be possible."

While the original purpose of zoos was to showcase exotic animals for the public, over the last several decades there has been a shift towards conservation. Because of this, many zoos and animal parks try to devote as much space as they can to threatened species, such as clouded leopards.

But Phillip says the other animals are still very important, too. She counts on popular species to draw the public in to meet and learn about endangered animals.

"Lions are a non-threatened species, but the public enjoys when they see them. So we'll create a space for them. The public coming to see and learn about them helps us take care of more 'conservationally correct' species."

Inter-species ambassadors

The strategy seems to be working for the Nashville Zoo. While the new cubs and their parents aren't on display yet, because the young family still needs its privacy, another pair of clouded leopards is happy to greet the public. Ming and Mei make their home in an Asian-themed display, just beyond a little bridge over rushing water, under a lush canopy of trees. When Luk, Chet and Sita are old enough, they too will be put on display.

Sita will not be here, though. She will soon be going to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to be paired with a young male, while the search is on for appropriate mates for her brothers. The Clouded Leopard Program may soon be expanding as well. Nashville is in talks with another zoo in the United Kingdom about an exchange which may further increase the genetic diversity of the clouded leopard population.

Karen Rice says while she will miss little Sita, she knows the cub, as well as her brothers, have important work ahead of them, as interspecies ambassadors. She hopes seeing them will encourage people to protect endangered species by being more conscious in their choices of the products they purchase and being more socially conscious.