- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Just a few years ago, red pandas were introduced to Houston as the world’s cutest animals. Now they have rivals for the title: Two clouded leopard cubs that made their debut this week at the Houston Zoo.

The cubs, Koshi and Senja, garnered headlines all over the world, earning the nickname “precocious playboys,” after photos showed them frolicking in the grass before their public introduction.

But the 3-month-old cubs are also the freshest faces in the argument for keeping animals in captivity: The revenue they help generate in ticket sales goes toward conservation efforts for endangered species around the globe. The crowds they draw are also a captive audience for conservation campaigns, which some argue are the only way to save their wildlife counterparts.

“Clouded leopard, like many other species, face extinction if nothing is done to stop habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation,” Benoit Goossens, director at the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, Malaysia, wrote via email. The center received more than $26,000 from the Houston Zoo last year, part of a total of $1.6 million given in 2013 to fund global conservation efforts. “The funding coming from Houston Zoo is extremely important.”

Just last month the center used money, in part from Houston, to successfully fit a satellite tag to a wild female clouded leopard for the first time. The hope is that the information collected will help guide conservationists as they try to preserve the animals’ rapidly disappearing rainforest habitat.

“Capitalizing on the times of something new is a wonderful celebration,” said Shelly Grow, director of conservation programs at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “It’s pretty hard to turn down the appeal of the baby leopards … I think it’s hugely important that people are excited and inspired by the animals they see.”

Creatures like the beautiful and charismatic clouded leopards and the red pandas, which debuted in Houston in 2009 after a lengthy “cutest animal in the world” campaign, don’t just bring in money for their own species.

Zoo revenue is used to help breed and release the somewhat less attractive Houston toad and the Attwater’s prairie chicken, two local Texas species nearing the point of extinction, with numbers down into the low hundreds.

The 225 facilities across the U.S. accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums give $160 million toward projects that have an impact on animals in the wild.

For some, though, that is not enough to justifying keeping animals in captivity. The clouded leopard cubs play in a 450-square-foot exhibit that stretches 30 feet high.

“Unless the intention is to breed highly endangered species, it’s really just about entertainment and just about doing something because we can,” said Adam Roberts, chief executive officer at Born Free U.S.A. “In general, the overwhelming numbers of animals (in zoos) are never having a conservation benefit to animals in the wild.”

Roberts argues that the money zoos donate to conservation programs is small compared to their revenues and pales in comparison to what’s spent on designer enclosures.

A new enclosure set to open at Houston Zoo next year will be the largest gorilla habitat at any zoo in the world. It will feature a waterfall, a flowing stream, natural and artificial logs, and a boardwalk for visitors to get a closer look at the gorillas. The cost: $28 million, part of a total of $50 million spent on the African Forest Exhibit. According to Born Free, that’s an amount that could fund conservation projects for lifetimes.

“Money is not being put in the right place,” Roberts told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1uLA3Sz ). “Wildlife belongs in the wild.”

At the zoo, officials say the money they donate is only a portion of the work they do, arguing that their main aim is educating patrons who come to see Koshi and Senja.

“We don’t look at our conservation dollars in terms of a bump in attendance from having cubs like this,” said Beth Schaefer, curator of carnivores at Houston Zoo. “It’s really great to use the cuteness as a platform to reach our guests … and have a captive audience to talk about clouded leopards in the wild and the plight they face.”

The clouded leopard’s Southeast Asian habitat is being destroyed by producers of the palm oil used in many products on our grocery stores shelves, including cookies, soap and shampoo. The zoo promotes two smartphone apps that enable visitors to scan bar codes to see if their shopping contains palm oil from new or existing plantations, although there’s no way to tell if any visitor actually takes any action.

For Koshi and Senja’s distant cousins in the rainforest, money does seem to be the key.

“Houston Zoo has been supporting our elephant project, our carnivore project, our banteng project, our camera trapping and wildlife corridor monitoring project, and several other projects,” Goossens said, adding that the zoo is probably the only one in the United States that also funds graduate scholarships for new conservation researchers.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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