At a facility in Front Royal, Va., Smithsonian National Zoo experts are using cutting-edge techniques to prevent extinction of endangered species.
Five-week-old clouded leopard cubs are getting their nourishment from zookeeper Jessica Kordell as part of a hand-rearing experiment. At the National Zoo's conservation biology institute in Front Royal, researchers are finding new breeding methods for endangered species like leopards.
The leopard cubs look cuddly now, but when they're grown up, the males especially will become aggressive. That aggression is part of natural breeding. Males, 60 pounds heavier than females, become so aggressive when mating, they end up killing their mate 65 percent of the time.
That is one problem threatening the livelihood of this rare species. Zoos are very concerned about putting adults together, scared that they might lose an animal.
"What if the young animals are put together, sort of pair-bonded early on in the stage, would that minimize the aggression?" reproductive physiologist Budhan Pukazhenthi asks.
In this setting, the Zoo is matching the males and females at about 6 months, hoping they will grow gentler as they grow up together.
The institute is also trying to find new ways to rear cheetah cubs. When cheetahs give birth to just one cub, they don't produce enough milk to keep the baby alive. Keepers use cross-fostering to put a baby with new mom Zazi, a gutsy move.
Hand rearing is an option, but it can have negative consequences in the future. "Hand-raised (cubs) just have human communication, they don't have any cheetah socialization, so they're not very good breeders in the future," said Lacey Braun, the lead cheetah keeper.
These innovative techniques are keeping scarce species alive, at least in captivity.The zoo keeper's work isn't limited to cats: elephants, birds, even amphibians are researched to keep the species from extinction.