For more than 40 years, the Zoo has celebrated these charismatic bears by creating and maintaining one of the world's foremost giant panda conservation programs. In that time, the Zoo's team— consisting of dozens of animal care staff, scientists, researchers, international collaborators and conservationists— has made great strides in saving this species from extinction by studying giant panda behavior, health, habitat and reproduction. Specifically, it has allowed scientists at the Zoo and Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) to learn about panda estrus, breeding, pregnancy, pseudopregnancy and cub development - work that is shared around the world with other institutions that also care for and breed this endangered species. SCBI ecologists spend months in China every year studying wild pandas and teaching Chinese colleagues how to conduct censuses and surveys of large mammals. They are also working to identify new landscapes for giant panda reintroduction.
For decades, SCBI scientists have studied red pandas both in the wild and in human care. SCBI ecologists spend months in China every year studying wild giant pandas and their neighbors, including red pandas. In 2012, SCBI launched the largest health and reproductive study ever on the red panda. This study evaluated the largest red panda population housed under human care at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Panda Base) in Chengdu, China. SCBI's Department of Conservation Medicine worked with experts at the Panda Base and George Mason University to conduct a biomedical survey of red pandas.
The SCBI headquarters in Front Royal, Va. has one of the largest red panda breeding populations in human care within the North American Species Survival Plan. Animal care staff have extensive experience with both mother-reared and hand-reared cubs. Facilities like SCBI allow a more private environment for mothers to raise their young. This facility also gives keepers and researchers the flexibility to monitor and assist animals who may have health or behavioral issues that could interfere with birthing and raising cubs.
The Zoo has been working with clouded leopards at SCBI since 1978, with the goal of creating a genetically diverse population. In the past 30 years, more than 70 clouded leopards have been born at SCBI.
Historically, scientists have had difficulty breeding clouded leopards because of male-female aggressions. Scientists found that males would often kill females during introductions for breeding. SCBI scientists demonstrated that raising males and females together from a very young age greatly reduced the chances of aggression. Scientists and the Species Survival Plan for clouded leopards aim to pair males and females determined to be good genetic matches when they are only a few weeks old.
In 2015, for only the second time, a litter of clouded leopard cubs was born as the result of an artificial insemination. Pierre Comizzoli, reproductive physiologist at SCBI, performed the artificial insemination in at the Khao Khew Open Zoo in Chonburi, Thailand, resulting in the birth of two cubs. The artificial insemination was the first successful procedure performed on a clouded leopard outside of the United States. The first and only other successful clouded leopard artificial insemination was performed by the late SCBI scientist JoGayle Howard in 1992.
The Zoo's fishing cats are taking part in a multi-institutional study that examines the many facets of introducing a potential breeding pair. Researcher Jilian Fazio is looking at stress and reproductive hormones to determine if different introduction techniques or individual personalities spell success or failure when it comes to fishing cat reproduction. The Zoo has successfully bred fishing cats since 2012.