Clouded leopards are the smallest of the big cats. They are also one of the rarest. In this cover story for Smithsonian Zoogoer, I explore the challenges facing clouded leopards today and their hope for the future.

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Once a breeding and training facility for cavalry horses, the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center is now home to some of the world’s most endangered species. It is here, among old barns and modern laboratories, where JoGayle Howard is making a stand for the clouded leopard. Howard, a veterinarian and reproductive scientist at the National Zoo, is battling time and threats to save the species from a decline that could end with extinction. But clouded leopards are reluctant partners in their own salvation. Difficult, secretive, and unlike any other cat, they defy most scientists’ attempts to understand them and, possibly, save them.