In August, a clouded leopard mother named Rukai gave birth to a kitten, who’s “eating, sleeping and growing,” according to the keepers at the Oklahoma City Zoo where he was born.
The tiny tropical predator, named JD, is doing well, and the zoo reported that as part of a program to ensure the clouded leopard’s survival in the wild, this little fellow will play an important role as an ambassador to the public, 99.999% of whom will never see this nocturnal predator in the wild.
But even with all this seriousness, the zoo couldn’t help but forecast their August as “cloudy, with a 100% chance of making you go ‘Aww.'”
Clouded leopards are native to South and Southeast Asia, but have disappeared entirely from several nations like Vietnam and Taiwan. Current science states that it was the first cat to diverge from the common ancestors of all big cats over 9 million years ago.
Clouded leopards have incredible dexterity, and can climb down trees head first and are able to hang from tree branches by bending their hind paws and tail around a tree limb. They can climb onto horizontal branches whilst hanging with their back to the ground like a monkey.
A unique population, the Formosan clouded leopard native to Taiwan, is officially considered extinct, though anecdotal sightings are enough to make science also officially open to considering the alternative. If they do still exist, they would be the rarest wildcat on Earth.
A solitary cat in the wild, early captive-breeding programs involving clouded leopards were not successful.
“For a long time, [zoos] were having a lot of injuries and even deaths of females when people were trying to do breeding introductions,” Adrienne Crosier, a biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, told Smithsonian Magazine.
“So, we started pairing young individuals—male and female—together so that they would grow up together, they would have that bond and then they would breed as adults.”
Earlier this year, the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Florida welcomed four clouded leopard kittens, as did a zoo in Nashville, a real boon to the population which is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List.