A clouded leopard kitten born last month at the Oklahoma City Zoo is “eating, sleeping and growing,” the zoo announced on Facebook. Once the young male grows up, he’ll become an ambassador for his vulnerable species and for wildlife conservation more broadly.
Born July 18 to the zoo’s female clouded leopard, Rukai, and a male named JD, the kitten is the first clouded leopard cub at a facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) this year. Rukai had been pregnant for 90 days when she gave birth to the still-unnamed newborn in the zoo’s Cat Forest habitat.
“Especially for our clouded leopard population, every birth is so important,” Adrienne Crosier, a biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, tells Smithsonian magazine. “They’re still kind of rare.”
Immediately, zookeepers began providing around-the-clock care to the youngster to “ensure he thrives,” per the Facebook post. And this week, keepers announced the clouded leopard’s new home: the Nashville Zoo. There, experts will continue hand-rearing the kitten, and he will be matched with a female in hopes that he may “have little cloudies of his own one day,” per the Oklahoma City Zoo.
This method of raising the cub is a best practice recommended by the AZA Species Survival Plan for clouded leopards. It’s also a carefully planned strategy to increase the kitten’s future breeding success—male clouded leopards may be aggressive toward potential mates, which has complicated breeding efforts in captivity in the past.
“For a long time, [zoos] were having a lot of injuries and even deaths of females when people were trying to do breeding introductions,” Crosier says. “So, we started pairing young individuals—male and female—together so that they would grow up together, they would have that bond and then they would breed as adults.”
ADORABLE Nashville Zoo has welcomed their very own clouded leopard cub!— FoxNashville (@FOXNashville) August 24, 2023
You can find him in the Zoo’s Veterinary Center nursery. https://t.co/zdILZ4alOH
(Video courtesy @NashvilleZoo) pic.twitter.com/1SUoDgMyNm
First identified in 1821, clouded leopards live among the rainforests of Southeast Asia. There, they skillfully climb up and down trees in search of prey, including monkeys, wild pigs, squirrels, birds and deer.
Clouded leopards have evolved a unique trait that allows them to move through the forest with ease: Their ankles can rotate backward, giving the cats lots of flexibility when climbing or even hanging from trees with their back feet. The animals’ jaws lend them another advantage: They can open their mouths wider than any other type of cat, and their two-inch-long canine teeth are disproportionately large for their body size.
But the species is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which most recently assessed the population in November 2020. Clouded leopard numbers are trending downward, and scientists estimate between 3,700 and 5,580 adults remain in the wild. These elusive creatures face threats from roads and railroads, dams and other water infrastructure projects, farms and plantations, logging, hunting and several types of residential and commercial development.
Clouded leopards in zoos are especially important for scientific understanding of the species—about 90 percent of biologists’ knowledge of clouded leopards comes from research on the ones in captivity. Fewer than ten wild individuals have been tagged with radio collars, which allows scientists to study their movements.
Zoos and conservation facilities across the country have enjoyed a handful of recent successes with clouded leopard reproduction. Earlier this year, the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Florida welcomed four clouded leopard kittens. Last summer, a pair of clouded leopards—one male and one female—was born at the Nashville Zoo. And in February 2020, the Miami Zoo celebrated the births of a male and a female kitten.
“Every birth is essential to maintaining the genetic diversity and demographics needed to sustain the zoo population,” Jilian Fazio, the clouded leopard Species Survival Plan coordinator at the Turtle Back Zoo, tells Smithsonian magazine in an email.
The young clouded leopard can be seen on a live stream from the Nashville Zoo.