Just two miles downhill from Chester Gap on U.S. 522, some of the world’s most exotic and endangered species are raising families within the heavily secured confines of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal – and they’re about to have company.
The 3,200-acre SCBI headquarters – which contains more than 400 animals, including about 25 endangered species – will also soon house up to 60 undergraduate students and 60 graduate students and professionals through a partnership with George Mason University (GMU).
And as for the animals, last Saturday (Nov. 12), a group of select donors, scientists and press were invited to a ceremonial ribbon cutting for newly constructed breeding facilities for two struggling species: the red panda and the clouded leopard. After a brief introduction from SCBI staff, researchers and a student, everyone piled into vans that wound up a rough dirt road leading to the secluded facilities tucked into the mountainside, to get a close look at some of these animals.
Phillip and Merrill Strange, donors to SCBI who live in Viewtown, were among the group taken up to the breeding facilities for the ribbon-cutting ceremonies on Saturday. Their first tour of the Front Royal headquarters was six years ago, and seeing the various wildlife being studied and cared for on the premises convinced them to get involved with funding SCBI projects.
“People travel the world to see some of these animals,” Merrill Strange said, admitting that she – like many people – used to strain her neck when driving past the six gated entrances and high fencing that skirts the perimeter of the property beside U.S. 522, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the mysterious creatures. “And not only being introduced to exotic animals but also having all of these amazing scientists tell you what they’re doing is really impressive – and it’s really impressive that this is right here, right next door.”
“SCBI is the premiere breeding ground for clouded leopards in the United States,” SCBI associate director Steve Monfort said on Saturday before the tou began. He attributed the success of the clouded leopard breeding program – and the construction of the two new facilities – to the vision of the late JoGayle Howard, who died of cancer last March. Howard was an expert on carnivore reproduction, and spent most of her time in recent years evaluating the reproductive behavior and biology of the enigmatic feline species at SCBI and in Thailand. “I feel like JoGayle is smiling down on us today. She lives on through all of us, and through the work we are doing here.”
Last year, the Stranges recalled, they donated a photo print by Chris Johns (managing editor of National Geographic and Rappahannock resident) to be auctioned off to benefit the National Zoo. Shortly afterward, Phillip Strange said, they received a warm, personalized thank-you letter from JoGayle Howard. It was only a few days before she succumbed to cancer.
“That’s just the kind of person she was,” Phillip Strange said.
Construction on a green-design GMU-SCBI sponsored conservation complex began in late June and should be completed by next fall. It will include a 120-person dormitory, an accompanying business hall and food service building, as well as a brand new academic center, according to SCBI senior conservation advisor Marshall Jones.
“Because we’re a unit of the National Zoo in DC, which is part of the greater Smithsonian, we’re connected with a number of academic institutions, but George Mason is most active with professors having undergraduate and graduate students here,” said Jones, who has lived on Gid Brown Hollow Road for 20 years and is advisor to Monfort and other SCBI senior management.
Jilian Fazio, a keeper at the National Zoo currently working toward her masters through GMU, was immediately struck by the mystery surrounding the clouded leopard when she first interacted with one in Texas in 2002. “They were an enigma; no one seemed to know anything about the clouded leopard then,” Fazio said on Saturday, adding that she was drawn to SCBI with the hopes of working alongside leading clouded leopard researcher JoGayle Howard, whom she described as a tireless ball of energy.
Fazio, who just completed a semester in-residence at SCBI, said that the clouded leopard is sometimes referred to as the “missing link” cat species, since it is so unique in the feline world. She described the clouded leopard as “a small cat with a big cat personality.”
“I’m focusing on clouded leopards lately because it’s one of the most difficult cat species to understand, and also to breed in breeding programs,” Howard had said in a meet-the-scientist interview for the Smithsonian. “So we’ve always had the problem of clouded leopards having severe male aggression, and males killing and fighting with females, and so it’s hard to have a breeding program with that behavioral aggression.”
Howard and her staff were interested in understanding what makes males aggressive toward potential breeding females and how to combat that problem. They learned, through studies on captive populations in the U.S. and Thailand, that if cubs were paired at a very young age (six to nine months) and grew up together, then that stops the male aggression.
“This is a state-of-the-art breeding research center where we can breed vulnerable animals in captivity, study them in an environment where they are under the least stress, and where we can learn about them, not only about preserving the genetic pool in captivity but also learning things that can be applied to the conservation of animals in the wild – and that’s especially important because there’s so little known about clouded leopards,” Jones said. “They’re very difficult to study; they’re very secretive.”
“I kind of feel that the red panda is the red-headed stepchild in this room,” joked Elizabeth Freeman, a GMU assistant professor of conservation studies and red panda expert, when her turn came to speak to the assembled audience of scientists and donors Saturday. Freeman, best known for her research on elephants in South Africa, said she was a sucker for the cuteness of the red panda, which looks like a cross between a raccoon and a teddy bear. There are only a few thousand adult red pandas left in the wild, according to Freeman.
“The red pandas do not get as much attention [as the clouded leopard], but you’ve seen them – they are absolutely the cutest animal,” Jones said. “Red pandas are related to giant pandas, and the giant panda is a very unusual bear species. Red pandas live in mountainous habitats in Asia, where they have these giant bamboo forests. They’re cold weather animals. These red pandas at SCBI have cement panda houses where it’s always cool, so on hot days they can seek refuge there. They’re active at night. Cold weather, winter weather, no problem for them.”
The name leopard is a little bit of a misnomer, according to Jones, who is currently working on the Global Tiger Initiative and often travels to areas in Asia where tigers and clouded leopards share territory. The “true” spotted leopard is a member of the big cat genus which includes lions, tigers and jaguars – animals that can roar. Clouded leopards are not in that group. They’re intermediate in size and are in a separate genus of their own. While a leopard weighs over 100 pounds, clouded leopards are 50 to 60 pounds for a male, and females are only 30 to 40 pounds.
“They’re built for climbing trees: long tail for balance, with very strong, huge feet,” Jones said. “And that’s a good thing because they share their habitat with tigers. When they’re on the ground, clouded leopards will always be in competition with – or may be at risk of being killed by – tigers. So they hunt animals that live in the trees – birds, monkeys, lizards. They are most comfortable when they are up in the air, off the ground.”
According to Steve Monfort, the greatest threat to the clouded leopard – of which population numbers are nearly impossible to tabulate due to their elusiveness – is from humans. Deforestation is a threat, but a more immediate threat is poaching.
“It is mind-boggling that the same animal you just saw today is routinely hunted and killed for its coat,” said Monfort, who noted that when scientists have tried to capture the elusive predator on film and in motion-activated photographs for population and behavior data, they mostly got pictures of hunters.
“There is tremendous poaching of them for their skins – especially as tigers and regular leopards have gotten more scarce,” Jones said. “Recently, there has been more poaching of clouded leopards for their coats. It’s illegal in most countries, and there is an international treaty that makes it illegal to take them across country boundaries, but there’s lots of smuggling. So clouded leopards are constantly under threat in the wild.
“But for Sa Ming, and for all the other clouded leopards here,” Jones added, “everything is just cool.”