Six Species Await You on National Zoo's Asia Trail

By Joe Elbert's Zoo Tales
Monday, March 30, 2009

In this occasional Page Three feature, photographer Joe Elbert uses a camera to show you inside Washington's National Zoo. You can see his videos at

Asia Trail, which opened in 2006 at the National Zoo, is home to six Asian species: sloth bears, fishing cats, red pandas, clouded leopards, Asian small-clawed otters and giant pandas. It's a "green" exhibit, incorporating recycled materials, solar-powered water-heating systems and foot paths using natural tree resins instead of asphalt. Also, the sloth bear and giant panda habitat buildings are built into the earth for better insulation.

Now to the furry critters that call Asia Trail home:

-- Asian small-clawed otters are the smallest of the world's 13 otter species. They are seriously threatened by habitat destruction, hunting and pollution. Small-clawed otters have a vocabulary of a dozen or more calls, in addition to cries of alarm. Six male and two female small-clawed otters live on Asia Trail. These little ones are like Jack Russell terriers on steroids.

-- Most sloth bears are native to India and Sri Lanka. When they were first seen by Europeans in the 1700s, they were described as bearlike sloths because of their ungainly appearance and long claws. A sloth bear uses its lips like a vacuum to suck up insects. They are the only bears to carry their young on their back. They are listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union.

-- Fishing cats are small cats native to south and Southeast Asia. Their short legs are built for swimming rather than running or climbing, and they can use their short, flattened tail as a rudder while they swim.

-- Asia trail is the home of two red pandas. Red pandas eat mostly bamboo and have a thumblike adaptation similar to the giant pandas' to grip bamboo, although they are not related. Red pandas are distantly related to weasels, skunks and raccoons. Their red-and-white markings help them blend in with the red mosses and white lichens of the trees of the Himalayas. There are fewer than 2,500 adult red pandas.

-- There are only 1,600 wild giant pandas and an additional 160 in zoos and breeding centers worldwide. Because giant pandas are bears, their digestive system is much more similar to carnivores' than herbivores'. That is why they need to eat so much bamboo -- 20 to 40 pounds a day -- to get enough nutrients.

-- Clouded leopards are mysterious felines from various regions across Southeast Asia. Their tails are nearly as long as their bodies, giving clouded leopards great acrobatic skills in trees. They also have long claws on large paws, which enable them to hang upside down from tree branches.

And the 'Zoo Clues' Winner Is . . .

Last week in this space, we published a photo taken by Joe Elbert at the National Zoo, and we asked you to identify the animal in the picture. The first correct answer -- a clouded leopard -- came from Jared Cachuela of Burke.

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