Conservation & Research

Conservation & Research

The Felid TAG supports a wide range of felid conservation and research projects around the globe. The Felid TAG’s main purpose is to provide a genetically diverse breeding captive population of a number of threatened and endangered species of cats to educate visitors about their wild counterparts and also possibly one day be reintroduced into the wild.  On top of this, Felid TAG and its member zoos provide funds, personnel and direction to in situ and ex situ conservation and research projects. 

In Situ Felid Conservation and Research projects:

Why conserve wild cats?

Cats play an important role as predators in the wild, helping to regulate populations of prey species and their impact on the environment. Predators require large spaces that support a healthy prey population. By helping to conserve felid species, zoos are also contributing to the support of entire ecosystems and many other wildlife species.

Cheetah chasing gazelle
Cheetah chasing gazelle (Photo: Demetrius John Kessy)

Challenges to wild cat conservation

There are many challenges to the conservation of wild cats. As the human population grows, wild spaces become smaller and more fragmented, increasing the potential for conflict and competition between people and predators. The black market trade in felid skins, bones and other body parts poses another major threat. The ever-changing political environment in range countries makes establishing and enforcing legislation protecting wild cats and their habitats even more difficult.

Conservation and research of felids in the wild

The first step towards conserving a species in the wild is assessing its status and its situation. Studying and protecting cats in the wild can be a tricky business. Just finding the cats in the first place can be a challenge!  Many cat species avoid humans, are most active at night, have large home ranges and live in terrain that is difficult to traverse.  Tracking and studying even one cat can be a challenge, much less an entire population.  Modern technology, including radio-tracking and camera trapping, has proven to be extremely useful in conducting field research.   

Radio-tracking Pallas' cats in Mongolia
Radio-tracking Pallas’ cats in Mongolia (Photo: Pallas’ Cat Conservation Project)

Conserving wildlife involves working with people just as much, if not more than, working with the animals, and often includes:

  • educating and working with local communities to help them understand the importance of protecting cats
  • protecting livestock from predators to prevent retaliation killing
  • offering alternative food and income sources to people to prevent poaching
  • hiring guards to protect, monitor and prevent poaching of animals
  • conducting research on felid species and their prey to better understand how to protect them
  • restoring and connecting habitats
  • lobbying local governments to protect species and habitats
  • reintroducing or translocating animals to protected areas
Teaching local students about clouded leopards
Teaching local students about clouded leopards in Borneo (Photo: Clouded Leopard Project)

For a detailed list of all of the conservation organizations and research projects with which Felid TAG member zoos work, go to the http://felidtag.columbuszoo.org.  Just a few of these projects are highlighted below:

Map of conservation and research projects with which Felid TAG member zoos work

Map of world with key to show where the following projects take place. Select the corresponding tab number to read a brief description of the project, photo and link to website

Tanzania (eastern Africa)
Lion Conservation Campaign: Ruaha Carnivore Project

The Lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) (http://www.houstonzoo.org/lionssp/) established the Lion Conservation Campaign to connect both zoos as organizations and individual people with conservation organizations working in Africa to protect and promote wild lions. The campaign focuses on six projects and allows people to donate directly from the website.  One of their featured projects is the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP) (http://www.ruahacarnivoreproject.com). RCP works with local villages in Tanzania around Ruaha National Park. This area of Africa holds the second largest African lion population in the world, along with significant populations of other carnivores like cheetahs and wild dogs. RCP works with local villagers to protect people and livestock from predator attacks and provide benefits in return for protecting predators.

African Lion
African lion (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

Namibia (southern Africa)
Cheetah Conservation Fund

The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) (http://www.cheetah.org) works in Namibia, Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Algeria. CCF funds research projects on cheetahs throughout their wild range and educates the local farmers on agricultural and land management practices. CCF is best known for its efforts in breeding and training Anatolian Shepherd dogs to guard livestock from predators. These dogs live with livestock herds, scaring away predators, thus protecting the predators from retaliation from local farmers.

Cheetah
Cheetah (Photo: Connie Lemperle)

Malaysia (Asia)
Tiger Conservation Campaign: Malaysia

The Tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP) (http://www.mnzoo.org/tigercampaign) created the Tiger Conservation Campaign, to highlight conservation projects for each of the three subspecies of tiger bred in AZA zoos (Amur tiger, Malayan tiger and Sumatran tiger).  Funds are distributed to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which organizes these conservation projects. In Malaysia, for example, WCS lobbies for stronger laws against poaching and educates and supports rangers that patrol tiger conservation areas. WCS also educates the local population and works with the local media, government officials and schools to secure support for tiger conservation.

Mayalan Tiger
Malayan tiger (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Thailand (Asia)
Clouded Leopard Project

The Clouded Leopard Project (CLP) (http://cloudedleopard.org) works to raise awareness about clouded leopards around the globe.  CLP provides an informational website and printed education materials, and sponsors workshops in range countries. CLP also provides funding for researchers studying clouded leopards in Thailand, Borneo, Sumatra, Vietnam, Taiwan, India, and Nepal, as well as for zoo-based research in the United States.

Clouded Leopard
Clouded leopard (Photo: Susan Shepard)

Texas (North America)
Ocelot Translocation Project

The small population of ocelots that exists in southern Texas is dwindling due to isolation from the Mexican population of ocelots and reduced habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A084) works with the Ocelot Species Survival Plan, zoos and conservation organizations in Texas and Mexico to plan for the recovery of this population. The plan includes translocating ocelots from Mexico to Texas to boost the genetic diversity and health of the Texas population, while also improving habitat and implementing wildlife road crossings.

Ocelot
Ocelot (Photo: Dan Bodenstein)

Conservation and research of felids in captivity

Ex situ research performed in a captive environment can benefit felids both in the wild and in captivity. Studies on felid behavior and reproductive physiology, for example, can provide valuable information that could not be obtained in the wild. Conservationists can use research findings to better understand the species and make informed decisions as to the best way to protect them and their habitat in the wild. In captivity, research findings can be used to improve captive breeding success and to make changes to the animal’s captive environment to promote their well-being.

Just a few of the ex situ research projects supported by the Felid TAG are highlighted below.

Small Cat Reproductive Biology at Cincinnati Zoo

Of the 37 wild cat species in the world, 28 are small in size, weighing less than 50 lbs. Many of these small cats are threatened with extinction in the wild but have received little conservation attention compared to the larger cats. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) has established breeding management programs for several small cat species including the ocelot, fishing cat, Pallas’ cat, black-footed cat, and sand cat. Concerted, collaborative efforts of zoos and other conservation organizations will be necessary if small cats are to survive and thrive in both the wild and captivity.

As a global leader in cat conservation, the Cincinnati Zoo maintains a diverse felid population, including all five of the above-mentioned small cat species. Scientists at the Zoo’s Lindner Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) study the reproductive biology of all five small cat species to optimize captive propagation and develop

assisted reproductive technologies for population management. CREW uses tools such as fecal hormone analysis and semen collection to characterize basal reproductive traits in small cats and improve breeding success. This basic  reproductive knowledge also is applied in developing techniques such as sperm and embryo freezing, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer and artificial insemination to produce viable offspring in ocelots, Pallas’ cats and sand cats.

Cincinnati Zoo scientists performing artificial insemination on a Pallas' cat
Cincinnati Zoo scientists perform an artificial insemination procedure on a Pallas’ cat. (Photo: Shasta Bray)
Dr. William Swanson with Sihil, an ocelot produced by frozen-thawed embryo transfer
Dr. William F. Swanson, CREW’s Director of Animal Research, with Sihil, an ocelot produced by a frozen-thawed embryo transfer

A comparative analysis of reproductive success in the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)

Clouded leopards are known for aggression during breeding introductions and the ability to determine individuals that may have a higher likelihood for success can assist in deciding which individuals to pair for breeding. Results from a study conducted by Jilian Fazio M.Sc., a Graduate Research Fellow pursuing her Ph.D. at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, revealed several behavioral differences between reproductively successful and unsuccessful clouded leopards. Males tend to have higher rates of territorial behaviors, such as patrolling and urine marking and females exhibited higher rates of defensive behaviors, such as flinch and retreat. Specific tests utilizing domestic cat urine and a mirror image stimulation were ideal for eliciting these behaviors in males and females, respectively. In addition, a friendly vocalization termed prusten in both males and females as well as urine marking in males, and retreat in females all act as predictors of reproductive success in this species. The behaviors exhibited by reproductively successful captive clouded leopards seem to correspond well with behaviors that would increase fitness in this species in the wild.

Clouded Leopard
Clouded leopard (Photo: Jillian Fazio)

Assessment of captive management in the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)

One of the most charismatic small cats, the fishing cat is found throughout Southeast Asia. Recently, this species was elevated from "Vulnerable" to "Endangered" by the IUCN emphasizing the urgent need for successful management of the captive population. Currently, the captive population contains fewer than 40 viable individuals. The challenges facing reproductive success include limited genetic diversity, low founder numbers, and behavioral incompatibility among pairs. Specifically, there is a lack of knowledge pertaining to the framework of successful breeding introductions. 

Fishing Cats
Fishing cats (Photo: Janice Sveda)

A Standardized Ethogram for the Felidae: A Tool for Behavioral ResearchersVery little is known about the fishing cats' sensitivity to environmental change and transfers between institutions and breeding introductions can increase stress and drastically impact reproductive success. An ongoing study conducted by Jillian Fazio M.Sc. aims to monitor the individuals that are transferred between institutions and involved in breeding introductions. Non-invasive fecal hormone analysis is used to monitor adrenal response and reproductive hormones.  Behavioral data and breeding introduction methods from each institution will be compared with hormone data to help pinpoint approaches that may lead to reproductive success. Finally, a keeper-rated temperament and behavioral assessment may help indicate differing temperaments between individual fishing cats, with the goal of pinpointing certain temperaments that may be more reproductively successful.

The concept of creating standardized behavioral definitions for felids was originally proposed by the Behavior/Welfare Working Group during the 2011 Felid TAG Meeting. Felid temperament assessments are becoming increasingly common in the zoological field, and as such, the Behavior/Welfare Working Group would like to develop standardized assessments for felids. The first step in achieving this goal is to construct clear behavioral definitions which can be applied to all felid species. Despite historic evidence that suggests the family Felidae share similar behavioral repertoires, no standardized ethogram providing comprehensive behavioral definitions has been created for exotic cats.

Snow Leopard
Snow leopard (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

In order to achieve this, Lauren Stanton at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore conducted a thorough literature review of published articles containing felid behavioral definitions. A total of 95 articles qualified for inclusion, and each article was systematically evaluated to identify and document the terminology used in each behavioral definition, its applicability to multiple species, and any type of categorization implemented. Careful review of the behavioral definitions confirmed that researchers tend to define cat behavior in similar manners, although some divergence was found between domestic and exotic (non-domestic) cat ethograms. A preference towards certain species was observed, with the domestic cat qualifying as single most common study subject, followed by several “big cat” species. Also, the majority of studies involving exotic cats focused on either enrichment practices or building activity budgets, while research investigating social behaviors was most common in domestic cat studies.

Using information gathered from the articles, a standardized, user-friendly ethogram has been created for future felid behavioral studies. This final ethogram, which is now being prepared for publication, suggests the use of “base behaviors” that can be altered using pre-defined modifiers in order to accommodate the requirements of individual studies while retaining consistent terminology. Several common behavioral categories are also defined, and suggestions of behaviors which qualify in each are presented to further assist researchers when developing their study. It was designed to be user-friendly and coherent to most observers (such as animal keepers, students, and volunteers) in order to increase inter-observer reliability, and ease comparisons of data collected across studies.

In addition to coming a step closer to standardized felid temperament assessments, use of this ethogram can help increase our knowledge of captive felid behavior, resulting in practical management decisions that may improve felid wellness. It may also help facilitate research on poorly studied species, such as members of the “small cats”. While the ethogram may require further refinement over time with use, by treating this document as a solid starting point, there is a strong potential to unify felid research, the benefits of which could be essential to the conservation and welfare of the Felidae.

Complementary copies of the ethogram can be requested by emailing Lauren directly: lauren.stanton@marylandzoo.org