The Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is one of the most charismatic of all the felid species. Named for the distinctive cloud shaped pattern on their fur, these medium sized cats are by far, one of the most secretive cats in all the world and shrouded in mystery.
Clouded leopards are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “Vulnerable”, with fragmented populations of no more than 10,000 total in all its wild habitat (Gray et al. 2021). Clouded leopards range throughout dense forests from southern china, Nepal down throughout India, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, their native habitat spans throughout South East Asia. Once believed to also inhabit the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, these cats have now been separated through genetic analysis as a completely different species (Neofelis diardi) as distinct from the mainland clouded leopards as they are from lions (Buckley-Beason et al. 2006; Wilting et al. 2007).
Clouded leopards are considered the missing link between the small and large cat species with many unique adaptations. Although they are in the Family, Panthera, they cannot roar like other big cats, but also cannot purr like small cats. Their teeth are the largest for all the cats species when compared to their skull size. Males, weigh only up to 50 pounds, but this is double the size of females. With short stocky legs and a tail that is equal in length to their body, clouded leopards highly arboreal, built for life in the trees. Their ankles can also rotate 180 degrees enabling them to climb down trees headfirst, or hang just from their back feet to ambush prey from above. These features give them the agility necessary to maneuver through dense trees with ease, frequently capturing monkey as part of their diet, along with wild boar and small deer.
These cats face many threats to their sustainability in the wild. Habitat destruction and degradation as well as poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are major threats to this species. Although clouded leopards are protected throughout much of their range, their unique and beautiful coat pattern and large teeth are frequently found in black markets throughout South East Asia. Cubs are also often sold as pets.
Here at Turtle Back Zoo, we are committed to clouded leopard conservation and have many ways in which we support this species both in zoos and in the wild!
TBZ supports field work in clouded leopard habitat, by providing resources to both the Clouded Leopard Working Group (cloudedleopardpartners.org) and SPECIES Project Neofelis (carnivores.org). These organizations are committed to clouded leopard conservation, with conservationists and researchers on the ground working with local communities and studying this little known species throughout mainland South East Asia. In addition, Turtle Back Zoo has donated to an important program based in Thailand at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo that supports clouded leopard breeding in zoos called, The Clouded Leopard Consortium (CLC).
The CLC was established in 2002, as a way to increase capacity building, research and essential population management of this species. At the time, breeding clouded leopards was extremely difficult due to mate incompatibility and high rates of infant mortality. Male clouded leopards can be extremely aggressive during breeding introductions and as males are twice the size of females, introductions would often result in fatal injuries to the females. If females did get pregnant, they would often not care for their offspring leading to high mortality rates. Three AZA organizations joined forces, The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium as well as Nashville Zoo all joined together with the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand to establish one of the most successful breeding programs for this species to date.
Since the CLC was established, many other zoos have supported their efforts, including TBZ. This has resulted in over 80 cubs being born and over a dozen that have been imported to the US to join the Species Survival Plan (SSP) population.
Each SSP is headed by an SSP Coordinator and Studbook keeper. The SSP Coordinator helps communicate and collaborate between all of the AZA zoos that house clouded leopards. If institutions want more cats, or need to move cats out, this information goes to the SSP Coordinator who helps to maintain the sustainability of the population through recommendations of breeding and transfers. The studbook, is an historical record of the entire clouded leopard population in zoos. For clouded leopards, it is an international studbook, so records from over 100 zoos and over 400 clouded leopards are kept in order to map out pedigree, monitor diseases and keep track of each individual throughout their lifetime. maintain has a single individual who is in charge of maintaining all the historical records on the population. For Clouded leopards, the individual that happens to have this role is our Zoo Director, Dr. Jilian Fazio. Dr. Fazio works closely with the zoos in the AZA that has clouded leopards, as well as international partners to ensure we are breeding the most genetically valuable individuals and maintaining the appropriate demographics and high genetic diversity.
The imports from the CLC has helped supplement the genetics and create a sustainable population here in the US. In 2018, there were discussions about potentially reintroducing clouded leopards back to Taiwan, where they are believed to be extinct and if these plans move forward cats from the SSP population would be the base of that new population. Therefore, it is essential that these zoo populations are maintained to help repopulate wild areas when possible. In 2020, the CLC was recognized by the AZA with the prestigious Bean Award, bestowed on zoo based breeding efforts that “…significantly enhance the population of a species, and represents a breakthrough in husbandry or breeding strategies that are significant milestones..” (Edward H. Bean Award; www.aza.org).
Successful breeding of the population over the past decade has resulted in several bonded pairs that have produced sufficient offspring to contribute to the genetic diversity of the SSP population and are now being maintained as exhibit animals and ambassadors for their wild counterparts. Therefore, Dr. Fazio in conjunction with the Reproductive Management Center (RMC) at the St. Louis Zoo and the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute, is currently investigating the use of Suprelorin® (deslorelin) to aid in both short and long-term management of genetically well-represented female clouded leopards. Reversible contraception has been used in other exotic felids to allow social housing of individuals that are not currently recommended for breeding, but may be genetically valuable for future reproduction and the goal is to determine if it can be used successfully in clouded leopards.
Finally, Turtle Back Zoo is excited to share this amazing species with our guests as we open up our new Amazing Asia expansion. This new habitat will feature our three clouded leopards, Madee (1 year old), Mali (3 years old) and Jye (3 years old). These individuals will have the opportunity to dazzle our guests with their agility in the trees and will be able to use their habitat that includes a heated tree and pool year round! In addition, to clouded leopards this new habitat boasts red pandas, Asian hornbills, Vietnamese pond turtles and pygmy slow loris, all species threatened by the illegal wildlife trade and essential to the ecosystems that they are a part of in their native range. We hope our guests will visit Amazing Asia and be inspired to join us as Turtle Back Zoo is committed to the conservation of these precious species and the ecosystems on which they rely!
Buckley-Beason, V.A., Johnson, W.E., Nash, W.G., Stanyon, R., Menninger, J.C., Driscoll, C.A., Howard, J.G., Bush, M., Page, J.E., Roelke, M.E., Stone, G., Martelli, P.P., Wen, C., Ling, L., Duraisingam, R.K., Lam, P.V., O’Brien, S.J. (2006). Molecular evidence for species-level distinctions in clouded leopards. Current Biology 16: 2371-2376.
Gray, T., Borah, J., Coudrat, C.N.Z., Ghimirey, Y., Giordano, A., Greenspan, E., Petersen, W., Rostro-García, S., Shariff, M. & Wai-Ming, W. 2021. Neofelis nebulosa. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T14519A198843258. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2021-2.RLTS.T14519A198843258.en. Accessed on 02 August 2022.
Weissengruber, G.E., Forstenpointner, G., Peters, G., Kübber-Heiss, A., Fitch, W.T. (2002). Hyoid apparatus and pharynx in the lion (Panthera leo), jaguar (Panthera onca), tiger (Panthera tigris), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and domestic cat (Felis silvestris f. catus). Journal of Anatomy 201(3):195-209.
Wilting, A., Buckley-Beason, V.A., Feldhaar, H., Gadau, J., O’Brien, S.J., Linsenmair, K.E. (2007). Clouded Leopard phylogeny revisited: support for species recognition and population division between Borneo and Sumatra. Frontiers in Zoology 4:15