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Denver Zoo welcomed the addition of a new, female clouded leopard cub this weekend to encourage successful breeding later in life. The unnamed cub was born on April 10 at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), a veterinary and reproductive research center headquartered in Front Royal, Virginia. She arrived at Denver Zoo on Saturday, May 17 on a Frontier Airlines flight, accompanied by a Denver Zoo keeper and staff member. The cub will be introduced to the zoo’s current clouded leopard cubs, male, Pi and female, Rhu, in the Zoo’s Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit in the near future.
“As the official airline of Denver Zoo, we are proud to have been able to help bring home the Zoo’s newest animal,” says Daniel Shurz, senior vice president, commercial. “I look forward to visiting the cub at its new home soon!”
“This move is critically important to ensuring the long term success of this species. Through collaborative research between the SCBI’s Dr. Jo Gayle Howard, Nashville Zoo and scientists in Thailand, we have learned that cubs must socialize with other cubs at an early age in order to be receptive to breeding as adults. With few cubs in zoos this is a very important step to ensuring a stable long-term population,” says Denver Zoo’s Assistant Curator of Toyota Elephant Passage Rebecca McCloskey.
The new cub arrived at Denver Zoo through a recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP), which ensures healthy populations and genetic diversity among zoo animals. It is not yet determined if the cub will be matched to breed with Pi as adults. At the moment, zookeepers merely want to socialize her with other young members of her species. It is not known how long any of the three cubs will remain at Denver Zoo.
Pi and Rhu were born on March 14. Unfortunately, their inexperienced mother was not able to care for them so they are being raised by staff around the clock. They began their lives in an incubator, but have graduated to a “whelping box” inside the Marynelle Philpott Fishing Cat Lagoon, within the El Pomar Foundation Village Hall. The box provides the cubs with a safe place to learn to walk, crawl, wrestle, and play until they have grown enough to have full access to the exhibit.
Despite their name, clouded leopards are not actually a species of leopard. Because they are so unique they are placed in their own genus, Neofelis, which is a combination of Greek and Latin words meaning “new cat.” They are considered a “bridge” between typical big cats, like lions and tigers, and the small cats, like pumas, lynx and ocelots. Their body lengths can range from about two to almost four feet long and they can weigh between 24 and 50 pounds. Their tawny coats with distinctive “cloud-shaped” dark blotches provide excellent camouflage in their forest habitat, enabling them to stalk prey and also hide from potential predators.
Clouded leopards are well adapted for living in the trees. Their short, flexible legs, large feet and sharp, retractable claws make them adept in the trees. They can descend head first down tree trunks, move along branches while hanging upside down and even hang from branches using only their hind feet enabling them to drop down and ambush prey on the ground. Their long tails provide balance as they leap from branch to branch. Their arboreal lifestyle also provides protection from larger predators like tigers and leopards.
They are found in Southeast Asia in southern China, parts of Nepal, India, Burma and from Indochina to Sumatra and Borneo and live primarily in tropical and subtropical evergreen forests up to 6,500 feet above sea level.
There are no reliable estimates for clouded leopard populations in the wild, but their numbers are thought to be in decline and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies them as “vulnerable.” Clouded leopards are endangered primarily due to habitat loss due to deforestation for agriculture. They are also hunted for their beautiful pelts and their bones, claws and teeth are used in traditional Asian medicine.
Denver Zoo has supported field conservation projects for the species in Malaysia, working to understand their current population size and threats to the species. Additionally, Denver Zoo staff members have traveled to Thailand as part of multi-zoo effort to breed clouded leopards there with the goal of supporting zoo populations and possibly reintroducing them to the wild.
Clouded leopards returned as a species to Denver Zoo in 2011 after a four year absence partly through a generous donation from David and Carla Crane in honor of David’s mother, Peggy Crane Epand. Guests can see the Zoo’s older clouded leopards under the Betty Robertson Leopard View, a shade structure outside the exhibit.