Grad Student Tracks Clouded Leopards to Thailand

Posted: June 9, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Jilian Fazio with baby leopard
Jilian Fazio with a cub during her 2008 trip to Thailand.

It was a windy spring morning at the National Zoo. Mook, the female clouded leopard on the Asia Trail, was reluctant to go outside, but her keepers couldn’t have been happier.

Zookeeper and Mason graduate student Jilian Fazio was hopeful that the changes in Mook’s behavior could mean she was pregnant. This would be the first offspring for the pair at the National Zoo.

As a species, clouded leopards are considered threatened, meaning that there are less than 10,000 of the animals in the world. There are only about 80 in captivity in North America. Fazio, who is working on a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy at Mason, has devoted much of her scholarly career to conservation studies involving the clouded leopard population.

Earlier this year, Fazio was awarded a scholarship from the Cosmos Club for her project, “Behavioral Assessment of the Clouded Leopard: A Comparative Analysis of Reproductive Success.” She used the scholarship money to finance a trip to the Thailand Clouded Leopard and Fishing Cat Consortium, a cooperative program with the National Zoo, the Nashville Zoo, and the Zoological Parks Organization of Thailand based at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Chonburi, Thailand.

Jilian Fazio with clouded leopard
Fazio trains a clouded leopard at the National Zoo.
Photos courtesy of Jillian Fazio

“I have always been very interested in carnivores and especially felids,” says Fazio, who did her undergraduate work in zoology at the University of Maryland. “I became intrigued by captive management and husbandry of felids, specifically the behavioral issues surrounding the species.”

This particular species of leopard has been called secretive or shy because it has been difficult to observe in the wild. Due to some of these idiosyncrasies, finding a “love” connection for these leopards can be tricky. Bad matchmaking can lead to injury and even death for the felids. Thus, clouded leopards are normally paired up when they are very young and always before they are sexually mature, say Fazio.

Mook and Tai, the clouded leopard couple at the National Zoo, were paired when they were only six months old. They are a successful match. Other pairings haven’t been so successful. With her behavioral assessment project, Fazio is trying to discover if there are certain “personality” or behavioral traits among the leopards that work better together and if there is a way to identify these traits early to improve the matchmaking. She has been using a battery of tests to ascertain leopard characteristics.

Fazio has been working with Mook and Tai since 2006 when the National Zoo opened the Asia Trail exhibit. She also travels to the zoo’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal, Va., to work with the clouded leopards living there.

Fazio’s devotion to these particular cats began early in her career while she was a keeper at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Texas. “That is where I met my first clouded leopard, Goliath, and basically fell in love. I have been fascinated with the species ever since,” she says.

She first visited the consortium in Thailand in 2004 while working as an animal keeper at the Bergen County Zoo in New Jersey.

“The Bergen County Zoo has only North and South American species in their collection, so it was a stretch to get them to let me traipse off to Asia for a month. But they did.

“The one thing that caught me by surprise in Thailand was how interested I became in the culture. I thought that by going to Thailand, I would learn so much about clouded leopards, and I did, but I ended up falling in love with the people and trying to learn the language,” she says. “Plus, there are 25 clouded leopards, and you can’t beat that!”

Fazio recently completed her research trials working with the cats at CRC. She will spend the summer and next semester reviewing the video from the tests and analyzing her data.

Clouded leopards are mid-size cats and tree dwellers. Part of Fazio’s work at the zoo involves regularly altering the enclosure of tree trunks and branches to keep the habitat interesting to the leopards.

As of the first of June, Mook was not pregnant, according to Fazio. Clouded leopards tend not to conceive in the summer and fall so it will be 2009 before she knows if a cub or cubs are in this pair’s near future. “We are very disappointed, but hope for next year,” she says.

At the National Zoo, Fazio also works with sloth bears, Asian small-clawed otters, fishing cats and red pandas on the Asia Trail.

To learn more about the clouded leopards at the National Zoo, visit the web site.

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