Autumn Conservation Festival

I've been living at and working at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) for four weeks now, and it has been pretty busy! I've really enjoyed getting to know each of the other interns, their interests, and their stories. We come from all over the country and all over the world, from Australia to Canada to Germany, and each individual is passionate for either a particular species, or a particular science. One of the girls is a visiting PhD student from Australia studying dugong endocrinology at a coastal research institute I actually visited while in Australia (dugongs are the Aussie version of manatees)! The intern lab trainer is doing her master's on lion endocrinology (the lionesses at the National Zoo had their cubs this fall!), and another two interns completed their master's in primate and elephant conservation, respectively. The current cheetah intern worked at the Iditarod this summer, and another is working towards vet school. The people here are so interesting! Be it education, endocrinology, veterinary medicine, or conservation ecology, this facility is full to the brim with bright minds and heavy ambitions.

There is perhaps no better way to illuminate the strides taken in conservation today than the SCBI's annual Autumn Conservation Festival. It's the only time each year that the facility is open to the public. Participants visit many booths throughout the facility to learn about current captive as well as wild conservation efforts for many species, from cranes to clouded leopards. Although not the entire facility is available to tour, many of the species residing on the facility are accessible to the public to watch and learn about. Being that I am doing steroid hormone research for clouded leopards, I naturally worked at the clouded leopard booth all weekend. We had sweet temporary tattoos, a fun game for adults and children alike testing their knowledge of wild cat species across the world, and featured MS and PhD projects currently working for clouded leopard conservation.

One of the tables at the clouded leopard booth featured this real leopard pelt. This individual cat was a zoo animal who died of natural causes and now serves as an educational tool. Visitors could touch the fur and see up close the curious, cloud-like pattern that gave the animal it's name. In addition, we discussed how clouded leopards are replacing tigers in the black markets for both fur sales and traditional medicines. Because tiger populations are in decline, hunters and poachers are turning to this smaller cat for their fur, to sell, and body parts (teeth, bones, fluids, meat) for traditional medicine (which, I'm going to say, probably won't cure your headache or impotency problem). Although laws against this exist, they are not strictly enforced in the clouded leopards home range, which extends through Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and farther south. These cats are arboreal, meaning they live in trees, though researchers do not know how often they spend their time between treetops and the ground. With poachers having better luck at finding these cats than conservationists, clouded leopard populations are unknown as well as unstable. Clouded leopards prey on monkeys, birds, small mammals, and deer. Of all the cats in the world, the clouded leopard has the largest canines relative to the size of it's skull... making it the living relative of the extinct saber-toothed cat. A master's student is currently studying these leopards through the use of non-invasive infrared camera trapping. These cameras, which are soundless as well as flashless, catch photos of wildlife in order to better assess what these cats are doing in their free time. Apparently one species of forest chicken is particularly fond of these cameras, as the student has collected more than one thousand shots of these birds sitting in front of the cameras (which are secured to trees at eye-level for the cats) and turning their heads in the idiotic fashion typical of your average farm chicken (I'm sure the clouded leopards eat them, too).

Meagan talks about clouded leopard physiology

With two booths, we were pretty busy! Heather (pictured right) is a PhD candidate studying male clouded leopard testosterone and cortisol to reduce male aggression towards females in captivity.

Listening intently to one of many very good questions! One of the infrared cameras I mentioned is sitting on top of the pelt. One interesting question I had to answer a lot from the small scientists: "How did you kill the clouded leopard?" WITH A LIGHT SABER! Just kidding.

I managed to score some pretty cool temporary tattoos when I walked around to the different booths! A video of the two female lions at the national zoo meeting the new male for the first time echoed throughout the facility (and my personal interpretation of this interaction consists of things I'm not willing to type out. But, that's just a guess.), drawing people in to learn about current projects to help with their survival. Other fun things included being able to see the maned wolves, checking out how tall some of the crane species are, and seeing some of both the clouded leopards and red pandas up close. I really enjoyed walking around the booths and learning about different conservation efforts, and I also learned a lot! Some highlights included visiting the Global Tiger Initiative booth (congratulations Ryan on the new job!), being able to basically lay down inside the girth of an elephant radio collar (not like the bobcat collars at all!), and consuming a vast amount of homemade potato chips. It was a joy to see the interest the community has in learning about the many species needing our help, and everyone enjoyed discussing what they are most passionate about. All in all, a great weekend!

Red pandas. Are. So. Cute.

 Sa Ming is one of the clouded leopards born at the national zoo. Here, he is seen wreaking general havoc.

A good still shot 


One of the girls- I have not learned her name- having a good sniff.