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For the first time in 16 years, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center celebrated the birth of clouded leopard cubs. (Lisa Ware, Smithsonian National Zoo)

National Zoo Celebrates Birth of Rare Clouded Leopards

Notoriously difficult to breed, two new clouded leopards are born at the National Zoo’s research facility

Hannibal and Jao Chu were introduced in Thailand when they were about six months old. The two grew up together and arrived at the Front Royal center in February 2008. They are now the only compatible pair among the Conservation and Research Center’s 12 clouded leopards. Their cubs prove that the technique works, and the implications for breeding more clouded leopards are “huge,” says Howard.

The cubs’ genes may be their most valuable trait. There are only about 75 clouded leopards in North American’s captive population, and many of these animals are too old or too closely related to be successfully bred. The new cubs' parents, however, are only one or two generations removed from the wild, so they are likely to carry genes that are different from those in the North American clouded leopard population. With any luck, each of the new cubs will be paired with a future partner by the time they are six months old.

In fact, Howard is already thinking about potential partners for the cubs. The North American Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plan, which coordinates breeding among the captive population, makes pairing recommendations based on the genetics and pedigree of each cat. These two cubs, with their wild genes, will be in high demand.

In the meantime, Howard and her team are not slowing down. “We just keep going,” says Howard, who credits thirty-years of science-based clouded leopard research for this birth. “It takes science, it takes research to understand a difficult species like this.” In fact, the Smithsonian’s Conservation and Research Center has ambitious plans for a multi-million-dollar clouded leopard breeding and research facility. Once completed, the facility will be able to house ten pairs of clouded leopards. Perhaps one or both of Jao Chu’s cubs will eventually produce their own cubs here.

But the National Zoo may not have to wait nearly that long to celebrate their next clouded leopard birth. Last week, just as the Conservation and Research Center’s staff began to organize a 24-hour birth-watch for Jao Chu, the Zoo’s second clouded leopard pair was spotted mating. The two—Mook and Tai—have mated before, but have never produced cubs. Howard is hopeful this time, saying the interaction appeared to be successful and the female “seemed more relaxed” than in the past.

For now, Howard and her team remain focused on the cubs. “Getting through the first week will be big,” she says. “Getting through the second week will be bigger. Every day’s a milestone.”

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