Breeding clouded leopards in captivity has been a challenge the world over, primarily due to male aggression, decreased breeding activity between paired animals and high cub mortality. Thus, two critical goals for this species are to develop strategies to improve breeding success in the ex situ populations and to determine the status of wild populations.
Thailand is an ideal site for Smithsonian scientists to initiate a clouded leopard conservation program. The Thailand Zoological Park Organization and the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation are interested in forming an international consortium to focus on conserving this treasured species and its habitats. In response to their invitation, we are developing international and collaborative breeding programs and field monitoring projects for clouded leopards in Thailand that will serve as a model for conserving carnivores throughout the world.
Ex situ breeding efforts have been initiated to improve clouded leopard reproductive success in Thailand zoos, where the largest ex situ population exist in all of Southeast Asia. The majority of these felids are genetically valuable, wild-born animals that have been confiscated and/or donated to the zoos. Health and reproduction frequently are compromised due to poor husbandry, imbalanced diets and inadequate enclosures. To address the challenges, the National Zoo has collaborated with the Thailand Zoological Park Organization, Asian Wildlife Consultancy, Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plans (SSP), and Nashville Zoo to initiate an improved clouded leopard breeding project at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Chonburi, Thailand. Currently, there are 24 clouded leopards in the project.
Animals have been moved from cages suspected to induce stress—small, lacking nest boxes and hiding places, adjacent to large carnivores such as tigers and bears—to large, vegetation-rich enclosures with nest boxes. For example, some clouded leopards lived in cages as small as 4’ x 4’ and then were moved to large, outdoor enclosures as large as 75’ long x 25’ wide x 30’ high in isolated (nonstressful) areas of the zoo. Nutritionally poor diets containing high fat, low protein, low calcium, and imbalanced vitamins were changed to include whole prey and vitamin/mineral supplementation.
The births of live clouded leopard cubs demonstrate that the changes in husbandry and nutrition have been effective for propagating both clouded leopards. To document the impact of management changes on stress and reproduction, detailed data have been collected on animal behavior, enclosure size, carnivore proximity and enclosure enrichment. Daily fecal samples have been collected from all animals before and after the improvements in diet and enclosure, in addition to during pair introductions, breeding, pregnancy and parturition. Fecal samples (n = 15,000) have been shipped to the National Zoo for assessment of fecal hormones. Never before have such dramatic changes in management been so thoroughly evaluated. For the first time, we are demonstrating the combined benefits of improved husbandry and nutrition on reproductive success using fecal hormone monitoring of stress and reproductive steroid hormones.
Carnivore Conservation Project
Another important component of this program is beginning to understand the status of these species in nature. Multiple national parks and nature reserves exist in Thailand under the supervision of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. A high priority is to assess all carnivores including the clouded leopard status, distribution, and density across these largely unexplored, wild areas. The National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center has the GIS (Geographic Information System) and satellite imagery tools required to identify critical remaining clouded leopard habitat within Thailand.
We will generate a GIS map of land use and habitats in Thailand. The completed map will assist us and our Thai colleagues in identifying critical sites while also making the best management decisions about the future of each of these predator species. We already have established collaborations with the Thailand Department of National Parks and the non-profit organization, WildAid, in an integrated conservation project at Khao Yai National Park, the oldest and best known national park in Thailand established in 1962. Our focus here in on training Thai forestry staff to be specialists in three areas:
At the invitation of the Thai government, we already have trained Thai staff in the necessary field techniques required to effectively monitor wild carnivores. Our first training course was held in October 2003 at Khao Yai National Park. Eighteen rangers participated in the 12-day training course comprised of eight modules that included survey and monitoring, motion-detection cameras, sign identification and field navigation using the Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. One highlight included a trip to Khao Kheow Open Zoo to visit our ex situ clouded leopard breeding programs. Participants observed clouded leopard anesthesia and the fitting of radiocollars (designed to examine the impact of the collars on reproductive and stress hormones via fecal hormone analyses). Trainees also had the opportunity to document first-hand the morphometric variation between male and female clouded leopards and to make high quality paw plaster casts to facilitate identifying tracks in nature. This information will be valuable as reference data for our planned field survey.
Following the course, the Carnivore Conservation Project was initiated, and six rangers were selected as the Carnivore Monitoring Team to focus on clouded leopards and other carnivores in the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex. Twenty remote infrared, motion-detection cameras were provided by a grant from the Friends of the National Zoo and donations from zoological institutions throughout North America (however, some cameras already have been destroyed by poachers). Funding now is needed to support the Carnivore Monitoring Team during the surveys and to purchase replacement field cameras, specialized field survey equipment and GPS units to identify exact location of the field cameras.
The goal is to study the clouded leopard in zoos and in the wild in Thailand for the purpose of understanding these elusive species to be able to conserve and protect them.
The ex situ component involves using noninvasive endocrine analyses for measuring hormones that are vital to reproductive success, health and well-being. Resulting data then will be correlated to environmental factors, specifically diet and enclosure quality, to identify those precise conditions that maximize reproductive activity (cyclicity, breeding, parturition, offspring survival), promote health (the absence of disease and injury) and minimize (or eliminate) stress (primarily aggression). We anticipate the findings will allow zoos worldwide to improve zoo management protocols to breed these species and maintain healthy viable populations.
The "wild" component of our project involves providing the assistance and capacity to our Thai colleagues to allow the first ever, detailed surveys of clouded leopards in nature. Specifically, this will include the development of needed maps and then on-the-ground data on species prevalence and density. Side objectives include providing yet additional training to developing Thai conservationists as well as inevitable "supplemental" data on other wildlife species—information that will be an added by-product of the use of cameras in our surveyed parks.
For the ex situ component of this proposal, our plan is to evaluate hormone content in more than 10,000 fecal samples already collected from clouded leopards in Thailand. These samples and the assessments are critical, because resulting data will tell us which management scenarios best minimize animal stress and promote maximal breeding, offspring production, health and survival. Our laboratory is a pioneer in the use of noninvasive hormone technology, including for assessing well-being and reproductive status in many wild felid species. We will use safe and validated enzyme immunoassays (EIAs) to measure fecal estrogen, progestin, testosterone and cortisol. Resulting data will be correlated with various management factors and known reproductive and health traits collected from extensive surveys of Thai zoo staff. These will include information on
These questionnaires were completed for each animal before and after the changes in diet and enclosure. Integrated together, this part of the project will allow defining the optimal zoo conditions that will promote psychological well-being, reproduction and overall health for the clouded leopard. This information then can be adapted worldwide to zoos interested in maintaining ex situ "insurance" populations, including here in North America and at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. This species is to be highlighted on the National Zoo’s new Asia Trail. Lastly, we expect several major publications in scientific journals to result.
For the in situ component, we have coordinated a survey monitoring project and the Carnivore Monitoring Team (staff from the Thailand Department of National Parks) that will involve species identification and measuring animal densities using motion-detection cameras. GPS units will be used to identify exact camera locations. The Khao Yai National Park (one of Thailand’s largest national parks covering four provinces in central, eastern and northeastern Thailand) will be surveyed initially through extensive use of infrared trip cameras systematically positioned in grids throughout the park. Khao Yai is 2,168 sq km in size and will be divided into 136 blocks (each 16 sq km). Each block will be monitored with a camera for one month. Each site will be baited with lure to attract predators and the cameras positioned to obtain a side view of each photographed animal.
Photographs of felids will be examined for unique coat pattern and markings to help estimate the number of felids within species based on a capture/recapture modeling of the number of new and "repeat" individuals photographed. A major part of this component is providing the necessary additional training to Thai colleagues both in data collection and analysis. Resulting information will be published within the Department of National Parks and used as a standard for making management decisions about next steps for conservation action. Documentation of the presence of poachers on the film from the field cameras will demonstrate the need to enhance anti-poaching patrols. In contrast, finding extensive felid numbers may reflect a healthy population or even the need to consider using some animals as a source for release into areas that have low densities or no clouded leopards.
These ex situ and in situ projects will provide a unique database for developing breeding projects and appropriate field strategies to conserve the clouded leopard, and other carnivores, in zoos and in nature. Additionally, we strongly believe that this program will serve as a model for how to link zoos and the field to the protection of rare carnivores. Overall, this program will provide a unique database for developing appropriate management strategies for carnivores and will serve as a model for integrating in situ and ex situ conservation programs in Thailand, Southeast Asia, and throughout the world.