Neofelis nebulosa & Neofelis diardi
Clouded Leopard & Sunda Clouded Leopard
C. N. Burne
17 January 2009
The Clouded Leopards are endangered medium sized cats found in the forests of mainland Asia and the Indonesian archipelago. Little is known about the cat due to its secretive and elusive nature. In common with other large animal species, the Clouded Leopards display morphological differences throughout its range. Historically, four sub-species have been recognised although N. n. diardi has recently been elevated to the full species status.
Species Authority: Griffith, 1821
Common Names: Clouded Leopard
N. n. nebulosa: Griffith, 1821
N. n. brachyuran: Swinhoe, 1862
N. n. macrosceloides: Hodgson, 1853
The Clouded Leopard shares a common ancestry (6 – 10 million years old) with the Tiger Panthera tigris, Lion P. leo, Jaguar P. onca, Leopard P. pardus and Snow Leopard P. uncia (The Clouded Leopards are basal to this group). Classically considered a monotypic species, the Clouded Leopard has recently been split into two species based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA, micro-satellites and morphology. Neofelis nebulosa is restricted to mainland Southeast Asia, and N. diardi is found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo (Buckley-Beason et al. 2006, Kitchener et al. 2006, Wilting et al. 2007, Eizirik et al. 2008). It is estimated that the two species diverged approximately 1.5 million years ago due to geographical isolation.
The Clouded Leopard takes it name from the distinctive markings covering its body. The base fur colour ranges from ochraceous, tawny to silvery grey. The pelt is covered in ellipses partially edged in black, with the insides darker than the base fur colour. Black and pale white individuals have been reported from Borneo. The limbs and underbelly are marked with large black ovals, and the back of its neck is conspicuously marked with two thick black bars. The tail is thick, encircled with black rings and very long (up to 80-90 cm). The legs of the Clouded Leopard are short, but its canines are relatively the longest of any felid (3.8 - 4.5 cm), and have a very sharp posterior edge. Clouded Leopards are intermediate in size between large and small cats, adults typically weigh between 11 - 20 kg.
Clouded leopards primarily utilize lowland tropical rainforest habitats, but can also be found in dry woodlands and secondary forests. They have also been seen in the foothills of the Himalayas at an elevation of up to 3000 metres. The Clouded Leopard is found from the Himalayan foothills in Nepal through mainland south-east Asia into China. The cat had a wide distribution in China, south of the Yangtze, but recent records are few. The cats preferred habitat is fast disappearing and illegal hunting of this species is prolific. The Clouded Leopard is extinct on the islands of Taiwan, Singapore and fast approaching extinction in Bangladesh.
The Clouded Leopard is native to the following countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam.
The distribution of Clouded Leopard sub-species are as follows:
Neofelis nebulosa brachyurus: Extinct – formerly Taiwan
Neofelis nebulosa macrosceloides: Nepal to Myanmar
Neofelis nebulosa nebulosa: southern China to eastern Myanmar
Neofelis nebulosa diardi: Sumatra and Borneo [elevated to species status]
The total effective population of the Clouded Leopard numbers approximately 10 000 with no single population numbering more than 1 000 individuals.
Habitat and Ecology
Clouded Leopards are strongly associated with forest habitat, particularly primary evergreen tropical rainforest, but there are also records from dry and deciduous forest, as well as secondary and logged forests. They have been recorded in the Himalayas up to 3000 metres. They have also been found in grassland and scrub, dry tropical forests and mangrove swamps. Radio-tracking studies in Thailand have showed a preference for forest over more open habitats.
Recent studies in Thailand have found that adult males and females had similar home range sizes between 30 - 40 km² in size, with smaller intensively used core areas of 3 - 5 km². While both studies found substantial home range overlap between males and females, as is typical of most felids, it also found that the ranges of males overlapped by a significant amount (39%). Clouded Leopards may occur at higher densities where densities of the larger cats like Tigers P. tigris and Leopards P. pardus are lower.
Clouded Leopards are known to prey upon a variety of arboreal and terrestrial prey including primates; Proboscis Monkey Nasalis larvatus, Northern Pig-tailed Macaques Macaca leonina, Gibbons Hylobates spp and Slow Loris Nycticebus spp. Terrestrial prey includes Hog Deer Axis porcinus, Asian Brush-tailed Porcupine Atherurus macrourus, Malayan Pangolin Manis javanica, Indochinese Ground Squirrel Menetes berdmorei, Muntjac Muntiacus spp and Great Argus Argusianus argus.
Very little is known about the behaviour of the Clouded Leopards. Prior to recent taxonomic studies, the last revision was completed over 50 years ago. Like most cats, they are likely solitary, unless associated with a mate while breeding or accompanied by cubs. Likewise, activity patterns are virtually unknown.
They are considered to have arboreal talents rivalling those of the Margay Leopardus wiedii of South America. In captivity, Clouded Leopards have been observed to run down tree trunks head-first, climb about on horizontal branches up side down, and hang upside down from branches by their hind feet. It probably does some foraging in trees, but mainly uses them for resting.
Clouded leopards are sexually mature around the age of 2 years. Mating can occur in any month. The gestation period is between 85 and 93 days with 1 to 5 cubs produced per litter. Cubs are independent at approximately 10 months of age. As opposed to most of the great cats, females can produce a litter every year.
Once thought to be exclusively nocturnal, evidence suggests that they may be more crepuscular as well as showing some periods of activity during the day as well. There is evidence to suggest that Clouded Leopards may be more diurnal in areas where other large cat density is low or non-existent. As with other cats, Clouded Leopards swim well, and have been found on small islands off Sabah and Vietnam.
Homo sapiens provide the only and most singularly destructive threat to the continued survival of the Clouded Leopards.
The clouded leopard is hunted and poached for the illegal wildlife trade. Large numbers of skins have been noted in market surveys, and there is also trade in bones for medicines, meat for exotic dishes and live animals for the pet trade. The decimation of the Tiger P. tigris population has initiated the requirement of substitute animals to provide for the ‘traditional medicine’ markets. As with the Snow Leopard P. uncia, the Clouded Leopard has been heavily poached for this very reason. In one Myanmar market monitored by the conservation group Wildlife Alliance, the number of Clouded Leopard pelts has increased by 200% in just two years. Many of these products end up being purchased by consumers seeking traditional medicines and exotic fashions in the booming economy of China. Live Clouded Leopards are also sought by wildlife traders, destined to become pets or join the exotic zoos of wealthy collectors.
Habitat and Prey Loss
Clouded leopards prefer closed forest and their habitat in south-east Asia is undergoing the world's fastest deforestation rate (1.2-1.3% a year since 1990). The forest habitat is experiencing rampant degradation due to logging and the development of agricultural areas, including vast palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. There is also significant impact in protected areas from the illegal collection of Aloe Wood Aquilaria agallocha, a fragrant wood providing valuable oil collected for Middle Eastern markets. During their time in the forest, wood collectors live off the land, hunting for meat and displacing wildlife. This trade is so lucrative that these wood poachers often employ armed guards to accompany them.
Lack of awareness, policy and implementation
There is a lack of interest in providing effective conservation within the cat’s distribution. Stemming the flow of this wildlife trade is proving difficult due to the participation of organized crime, corruption in the ranks of law enforcement, and a strong cultural tradition of consuming wildlife. Many of the countries in which the Clouded Leopards live are developing economies with high levels of poverty. Local people with few alternative sources of income poach animals and cut Aloe Wood trees causing further habitat destruction. However, a new initiative by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations aims to develop a cooperative strategy to strengthen enforcement of wildlife laws and reduce market forces throughout the region in a serious bid to eliminate poaching.
The Clouded Leopard is listed as VULNERABLE on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Clouded Leopards occur within many areas that are protected from hunting, although legislation is rarely enforced. Hunting is banned in Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, and hunting regulations apply in Laos. Clouded Leopards are classified as an Appendix I endangered species by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (C.I.T.E.S) legislation which makes it illegal to transport any part/s of the cat over international borders. Further protection is provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the United States Endangered Species.
The species is considered to be in decline, although accurate numbers are difficult to substantiate given the nature of the animal as well as its habitat. The recent elevation to species status of the Sundaland Clouded Leopard will have significant conservation implications as Borneo and Sumatra face some of the highest deforestation rates in the world.
To ensure the long-term survival of Clouded Leopards it is essential that there are enough protected areas in which they and their prey can live. Equally important is the development and enforcement of strict wildlife protection laws to eliminate poaching of cats and their prey.
Link to cloudedleopard.org
Link to iucnredlist.org
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2. Buckley-Beason, Valerie A. et. al. Molecular Evidence for Species-Level Distinction in Clouded Leopards.
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5. Current Biology, Volume 16, Issue 23, 2377-2383, 5 December 2006
6. Link to www.cloudedleopard.org
7. Link to www.panda.org/news_facts/newsroom/index.cfm?uNewsID=95660
8. Link to www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(06)02491-2