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Thailand Clouded Leopard Breeding Project paw
Clouded Leopard Conservation and Research in ThailandThailand Clouded Leopard Breeding Project

This program, based at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo, is a consortium consisting of the Thailand Zoological Parks Organization (ZPO), Khao Kheow Open Zoo, Nashville Zoo, Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, and the Clouded Leopard SSP. This coalition of international partners is working together to develop a viable self-sustaining clouded leopard breeding program in Thailand. Khao Kheow Zoo, in Chonburi, Thailand, serves as the project's breeding center, housing pairs of clouded leopards originating from the five zoos within the ZPO. Some of the cubs that result will be exported to the United States and other countries to serve as new founders to zoo-based populations in an effort to improve genetics and demographics.

An essential component of the project is the placement of a full-time coordinator from the United States in Thailand. The coordinator, Fernando Najera, oversees the project and performs critical duties such as developing proper husbandry techniques, training Thai zookeepers, improving enclosures, assisting in veterinary care, and maintaining records. Experienced clouded leopard managers from Smithsonian National Zoo, the Nashville Zoo, and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium also rotate duties as relief project coordinators, with the zoos funding their salaries while they are working in Thailand.

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Baby Leopards in Action

This project has multiple animal management and research objectives including:

  Renovate existing enclosures at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo to provide isolated breeding areas and dens for clouded leopards
  Provide an onsite animal manager with extensive experience in clouded leopard breeding, nutrition, and management
  Provide salary for an English-speaking Thai animal keeper
  Provide training in basic clouded leopard husbandry and breeding techniques
  Develop a record keeping system for animal husbandry, nutrition, breeding, pregnancy, and cub survival data
  Formulate and provide a nutritionally balanced diet
  Assess stress levels measured as fecal cortisol
  Assess female reproductive status and cyclicity using fecal hormone analyses of estrogen and progesterone metabolites (conducted by Smithsonian National Zoological Park)
  Create breeding pairs with with selected animals
  Monitor pregnancy/gestation/parturition using fecal hormones

Many program objectives, particularly at the program’s onset, included daily fecal collections for analyses of reproductive and stress hormones in the clouded leopards. Fecal collections began in May 2002 and are ongoing. Samples continue to be collected daily and are/have been utilized to determine the following: 1) assessing changes in stress (measured as fecal cortisol) before and after moving cats from old enclosures and exhibits to new large isolated enclosures with tall cages (75' x 25' x 30') (study conducted by Dr. Nadjia Wielebnowski of the Brookfield Zoo); 2) assessing female reproductive status and cyclicity using fecal hormone analyses of estrogen and progesterone metabolites (study conducted by Katey Pelican and JoGayle Howard of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park); 3) assessing nutritional and health status before and after diet improvements (analyzed by Drs. Pelican and Howard); and 4) monitoring pregnancy, gestation, and parturition using fecal reproductive hormones (analyzed by Drs. Pelican and Howard).

In January 2003, Drs. Katey Pelican and JoGayle Howard traveled to Thailand to: 1) assess semen quality in consortium clouded leopards following improvements in diets and enclosures; 2) cryopreserve sperm for the Clouded Leopard Genome Resource Bank; 3) conduct behavioral surveys on participating cats; and 4) document current and previous enclosure dimensions and characteristics. Semen quality was excellent (80 - 85% motile sperm) in specific males housed in the new low-stress enclosures and on the new balanced diet. In summary, there has been excellent progress in the ex situ husbandry and breeding program.

April 2003 brought the program's first successful litter following natural breeding, resulting in the birth of two clouded leopard cubs at KKOZ. This achievement illustrates the benefits of improved diet, enclosures, and husbandry. Since that time, breeding has progressed rapidly, with fifty-seven clouded leopard cubs being born as part of the program since its inception.

Several of the breeding program’s cubs have been imported into the United States, beginning in early 2005. Initially, pairing of imported cats was attempted at both the Nashville Zoo and Smithsonian’s National Zoo with cubs born at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, however neither pair was successful. Subsequent imports have consisted of young bonded pairs to facilitate breeding success. Several of these imported pairs have now breed in North American, providing important augmentation to the genetic diversity of the North American clouded leopard population.