NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CBS News) – An adorable clouded leopard cub is making history by being the first of his species to be born from an artificial insemination (AI) procedure that used frozen and thawed semen. The birth on Wednesday was significant for the Nashville Zoo and the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute given that clouded leopards are among the rarest cat species globally.
Described as secretive animals, clouded leopards are difficult to breed in captivity, making this birth a significant step forward in conserving the endangered species.
“This is an enormous accomplishment for both Nashville Zoo and the team at the Smithsonian,” Dr. Heather Robertson, the zoo’s director of veterinary services, said in a press release. “It means we can collect and preserve semen from clouded leopard populations around the globe and improve pregnancy outcomes from AI procedures in this species.”
Hormones were used to induce ovulation in Tula, a female clouded leopard born and raised at the Nashville Zoo. Researchers from the Smithsonian collected semen from Hannibal, a male leopard at the National Zoo in Washington, a week earlier. They used a new technique to freeze the semen.
“This cub, the first clouded leopard offspring produced with cryopreserved semen, is a symbol of how zoos and scientists can come together to make positive change for animals and preserving global biodiversity,” Dr. Adrienne Crosier of the Smithsonian said in the press release. “Collaboration is the key to conservation of clouded leopards, along with so many other rare and endangered species we care for and study.”
The cute little cub will stay at the Nashville Zoo and will be hand-raised by zookeepers to help make sure he survives into adulthood. Eventually, the researchers hope to introduce him to a future mate.
The zoos have long worked to conserve the species. In 2000, they founded the Clouded Leopard Consortium in collaboration with the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, and Thailand’s Zoological Park Organization. The group’s aim is to creating breeding programs and further research into clouded leopard populations in Thailand, where a dwindling population lives in the forests.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are only about 10,000 clouded leopards left in the wild in southeast Asia and the eastern Himalayas.
This little cub’s birth comes 25 years after the first successful clouded leopard AI procedure was performed at the Nashville Zoo, and two years after a cooled sperm technique was used at the Khao Khew Open Zoo in Thailand.