Clouded Leopard Cub - photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo
Is modern clouded leopard conservation gradually confining itself to conservation in captivity? I don't know but I am beginning to feel that it might be the case. The reason why I say this is because I never see stories about how deforestation in Asia is slowing. Or that there is some sort of plan to stop deforestation say next year! (heavens forbid that sounds impossible). The point is that slowing or a planed reduction in deforestation over a predetermined timescale would be by the far the best form of modern clouded leopard conservation. It would be the ultimate form of conservation; conserving the habitat to conserve all the animals that rely on the forest habitat (and there are many).
But all I see on the conservation front is captive cat conservation. And believe me captive cats are in danger too because the clouded leopard does not do that well in captivity in respect of its breeding abilities. It is difficult to breed in zoos.
The clouded leopard is well represented in zoos (it would be because it is running out of places to live in the wild!). At 2002 there were 224 clouded leopards in 79 zoos or zoo like institutions in the world. There were 86 in North American zoos. But (at 2002) less than 20% of adult females had bred successfully in captivity. These are females listed in a stud book called the International Clouded Leopard Studbook (Sunquists referring to Yamada, JK and BS Durrant Vaginal cytology and behavior in the clouded leopard).
So, conservation in captivity is needed as well as in the wild and as we simply do not have a handle on the situation in the wild (meaning conservation seems out of control - we don't even have a clear idea of population size - about 400) we are left with ensuring the health of captive animals. It would seem that one big danger (the biggest?) is inbreeding in captivity due to very low populations. This has happened to the captive tiger population in China (see Inbreeding of Wildcats)
An example of what I would call captive cat conservation is happening at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. There has been a importation of clouded leopards from Asia (Arun and Jing Jai) last year as part of the Thailand Clouded Leopard Consortium conservation efforts. These cats gave birth to cubs recently - fantastic. The zoo says that the birth of these cubs introduces new clouded leopard genes into the US population for the first time in 20 years - see the problem.
So, we are unable to conserve in the wild and struggle to conserve in captivity despite the best efforts of some great work by fine people.
I know I am pessimistic but my pessimism comes from observation not from within me. I just see us almost giving up with the idea of saving these cats in the wild and now the modern clouded leopard conservation programs are taking up the fall back position, the last stand trying to get it right for the leopards in captivity so at least it will be saved for the world.
In a addition to deforestation the other threats to survival in the wild in Thailand (at 2002 - Sunquists) are:
- hunting for pelts
- capture for live animal trade
Tiger populations in captivity far outstrip populations in the wild. The clouded leopard populations in captivity are similar to those in the wild. One day there will be more in captivity and then we will know for sure that we are moving in the direction of were the world wants to go - all of them in captivity and out of the way to allow commercialization of the forests. And these are virgin forest remember that have been there for thousands of years.