Arguably Nashville Zoo’s signature species, the clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, represents successful conservation initiatives including field research and captive breeding programs. Clouded leopards are native to the tropical lowlands of Southeast Asia in countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. Clouded leopards are the world’s strongest climbing cats, which gives them an advantage over the other big cats which share their range.
Clouded leopards are listed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction due to deforestation, poaching and the pet trade. They are protected in most range countries although enforcement in many areas is weak. Precise data on clouded leopard population numbers is not known, but researchers estimate there are around 10,000 clouded leopards in the wild. Specific populations can be difficult to track, as the clouded leopard is among the rarest of the world’s cat species and one of the most elusive. The reduced number of pelts encountered at markets and reduced sightings of clouded leopards by people within its range suggest the species is in decline.
Here, At Nashville Zoo
Through collaborative breeding programs, assisted reproduction, advanced veterinary care and captive husbandry techniques, Nashville Zoo has become a leader in clouded leopard conservation and is an active participant in the Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plan® and the Clouded Leopard Consortium.
Collaborative Breeding Programs
Since 2000, Nashville Zoo has partnered with zoos around the world to develop collaborative breeding programs and field monitoring projects for clouded leopards in Thailand. The resulting Clouded Leopard Consortium is based at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo with assistance from Thailand Zoological Parks Organization (ZPO), Nashville Zoo, Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, and the Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plan®.
Even with the Species survival plan, captive clouded leopard populations are not self-sustaining due to their reclusive disposition. As a result, zoos and researchers have developed assisted reproduction techniques to help sustain the population and maintain genetic diversity. The first successful clouded leopard artificial insemination was performed at Nashville Zoo in 1992 by Smithsonian scientist, JoGayle Howard, and Nashville Zoo President, Rick Schwartz. In 2015, Dr. Comizzoli at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand successful birthed clouded leopard cubs using cooled semen and a new artificial insemination technique. In 2016, veterinarians from Nashville Zoo and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute built off his work to successfully perform an artificial insemination procedure on one of Nashville Zoo’s female clouded leopards using semen that had been frozen and then thawed. Niran was consequently born from this procedure on March 1, 2017 signifying a giant step for global conservation efforts by enabling individuals that are at different zoos or even on different continents to breed.
At Nashville Zoo more than 38 clouded leopard cubs have been born since 2009. All of our clouded leopard cubs are raised by hand. This technique prevents parental predation or neglect, which is common for clouded leopards, and allows this normally nervous species to become acclimated to the sights and sounds of human interaction typical in an exhibit environment. Hand-raising also allows the Zoo to pair cubs at an early age. Our research with breeding clouded leopards has revealed that pairing at an early age significantly reduces aggression and allows for more successful breeding pairs.
What Can You Do to Help Clouded Leopards?
The biggest threat to clouded leopard populations in the wild is habitat loss, and one of the largest factors fueling the destruction of the clouded leopard’s habitat is palm oil production. Palm oil and its derivatives can be found in 50% of supermarket items, so as consumers, we can help clouded leopards by showing companies we prefer products made with sustainably produced palm oil. Learn more about how to find products made with sustainable palm oil.