Efforts to save endangered species in part depend on inducing the animals to mate in captivity, which is not always easy. Mating mayhem – in which males kill females – has been a serious problem with efforts to save the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa).
According to NBC News zookeepers at the Smithsonian National Zoo hope they have cracked the code leading to mating mayhem. The zoo has been trying to breed them since the 1970’s and 75 cubs have been born. The cats are not on public display because they have been killing each other. They are housed at the zoo’s Front Royal Virginia center.
Close observation of the cats and attempts to reduce stress appear to be the key. The males were prone to kill the females at night if they were left alone. But Smithsonian researchers worked with counterparts in Thailand to help unravel the problem. They realized they were on the right track when stress hormones in the cat’s droppings fell as a result of the changes.
“For years the incredibly rare cats had frustrated zookeepers hoping to breed them. The males killed the females, sometimes almost instantly. Even if they could tolerate one another in a cage, they refused to breed. And they hid. The Smithsonian staff overcame those problems through dogged patience, making one change after another to reduce the animals’ stress, improve their health and get them in the mood for mating. These ranged from giving them trees to climb, to varying their diet and gradually getting them used to being together.”
“The clouded leopards are the smallest of the “great cats”, just 36 inches long and weighing between 25 and 50 pounds . Their large, gray paws and bowed legs make them well suited for tree-climbing. Named for the cloud-shaped gray and black markings on its short fur, the clouded leopard is found in southern China, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia’s islands of Sumatra and Borneo.”
They are also found in Nepal, Bangladesh and eastern India. Borneo is believed to have the largest population. As part of the reevaluation of cat genetics the clouded leopard is now seen as two species. Clouded leopards live on the mainland and Sunda clouded leopards live on the islands including Borneo and Sumatra. Topping out at 50 pounds they are capable of killing large prey. It is thought that their extra wide gape (how wide they can open their mouth) and extra long canines help them tackle large prey.
Researchers so far have made three key changes to reduce mating mayhem. Keepers discovered that most zoos kept the “cloudies” near tigers. That only increased their stress.
Second, facilities also kept them in conventional enclosures with nothing to climb. A major stressor for a cat built to climb. Third, it was also discovered that normal feline diets were inadequate for these cats and they weren’t happy. A special clouded leopard “chow” was formulated.
The biggest change was the decision to hand rear the cubs. Most of the time felines are kept with their mothers. Here it was decided that the easily tamed babies are actually safer away from their mothers. That is a controversial decision because zoos seek to keep the “wildness” in the captive animals so they can possibly be returned to the wild with minimal involvement with people.
Zoos and other institutions are at the forefront of efforts to save endangered cats including the Iberian lynx, Fewer than 100 were believed to survive in Spain and Portugal. A major effort including captive breeding has increased the number to about 500 in the peninsula. Jaguars are also victims of fragmented range and efforts to connect their range and reintroduce them to the wild are ongoing. Some conservationists are looking to “re-wilding” by taking captive bred animals and reconditioning them to live without humans.