Researchers successfully breed clouded leopards

A newborn clouded leopard is fed by researchers at the Khao Khew Open Zoo in Chonburi, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Khao Khew Open Zoo

For the first time in 22 years, scientists have successfully bred a litter of clouded leopards using artificial insemination.

Dr. Pierre Comizzoli, reproductive physiologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, worked with researchers in Thailand on a new technique to make this possible.

The litter of two clouded leopards was born at the Khao Khew Open Zoo in Chonburi, Thailand, on June 9.

Both the institute and the zoo are part of the Clouded Leopard Consortium, which is an effort to study the leopards and breed a sustainable population.

Comizzoli and researchers on the project deposited calculated doses of selected male sperm closer to the where the female’s eggs are, which differed from previous methods.

A litter of clouded leopard cubs was born through artificial insemination on June 9. Photo courtesy of Khao Khew Open Zoo

“This is a technique that has been developed in domestic cats, and … we have adapted to clouded leopards,” Comizzoli explained.

Comizzoli said researchers have tried many times since the 1990s to use artificial insemination to build a captive population.

The late Dr. JoGayle Howard conducted the last successful litter of clouded leopards from artificial insemination in 1992.

Since that success, Comizzoli said, “The situation, in terms of genetic diversity in the captive population of clouded leopard, hasn’t really improved.”

Clouded leopards are native to the Himalayan foothills of Nepal as well as part of Southeast Asia and China, but its population — like many species the Front Royal institute researches — is in decline.

Comizzoli said, “We need to preserve a maximum amount of genetic diversity of the animals … for potential release in the wild.”

However, raising clouded leopards in captivity can be challenging for many reasons, one of which has to do with male-female aggression during captive breeding.

“In the past there have been animals who died after introductions, because they were killing each other,” he explained.

To work around this problem, Comizzoli and many researchers in this field have been working through a frustrating process using artificial insemination on the leopards.

The overall objective with these efforts, Comizzoli said, is to preserve 90 percent of the species’ genetic diversity in a captive population.

“We hope that this is not going to be the only success,” Comizzoli said. “Hopefully, now we have the tool that is going to help us … to create a real sustainable captive population of clouded leopards.”

Comizzoli also said that the work in Thailand is helpful in that it centralizes the animals in one location, making management of the population easier.

At the same time, he said that this new technique could be applied to the North American captive populations, which he said is between 100 and 150 leopards.

He also noted that reintroduction is possible here, and stressed the importance of researching what is affecting clouded leopards in the wild.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List has clouded leopards listed as  a vulnerable species due to habitat loss as well as illegal wildlife trade, or poaching.

The Red List has also estimated that there could be less than 10,000 clouded leopards left in the world.

Comizzoli said, “It’s really difficult to get an estimate of the current population in the wild because those animals are living in the forest and in the canopy of the trees.

“Before we decide to reintroduce some animals, we need to have a really good picture of what’s going on in specific areas of the forest.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com