Endangered Leopard Cubs Born at National Zoo Facility

Despite the murderous tendencies of the species in captivity, two newborn clouded leopard cubs were found alive and well at the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In the end, Hannibal did not administer the fatal bite to his mate's neck. And Jao Chu did not immediately kill their offspring, as is often the case.

And so, early yesterday, despite murderous tendencies in the captive species, two newborn clouded leopard cubs were found alive, well and squealing at the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va.

They were taken immediately from their gorgeous mother before she could do them harm, or do them in, placed in an incubator set at 88 degrees and fed salt water from baby bottles. Born with dappled, reptile-pattern fur, they were the first such births at the zoo in 16 years.

Their births were a coup, and the end of a complex reproduction saga involving an exotic, endangered and beautiful species of animal that experts call the ghost cat.

It was also a genetic home run: The zoo said the cubs' genes, which come from outside the captive population, make them among the most valuable clouded leopards in North America.

"Genetically, they're the most valuable animals outside their home range," said Ken Lang, a zoo expert on the species, because their genes stem directly from the wild. "These are totally new genes."

The births are thus a heavy responsibility. The precious cubs must be hand raised by the zoo's staff to guarantee their survival. "It's scary," said Lang, the center's mammal unit supervisor. "It's a lot of pressure. . . . We haven't had babies for 16 years."

In addition, the births were the first in the official North American clouded leopard zoo population in six years, the zoo said. The zoo has 14 clouded leopards, including the newborns: two at the zoo in Washington, and 12 at the research center.

The clouded leopard is native to Southeast Asia, the zoo said. It is about the size of a medium-weight dog, with a small head, luminous eyes and long, white whiskers. It has weird black and tan spots that seem to blur into each other, huge paws and an extremely long tail.

It is an acrobatic climber and can walk on the underside of tree branches or vertically down a tree trunk, the zoo said. And it has unusually long, sharp teeth that resemble the fangs of a poisonous snake.

But the leopards are endangered in the wild and are hunted in Asia for their beautiful pelts.

The zoo had a successful breeding program for clouded leopards during the 1980s and early 1990s, but it was halted in 1993 because of fears of inbreeding among related leopards across the country.

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