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CLOUDED LEOPARD : A ‘SABER-TOOTH’ CAT

Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), a beautiful Asian cat, is found from the Himalayan foothills through mainland Southeast Asia into China. Named for its spotted coat, it has been placed under ‘vulnerable’ category in 2008 by IUCN. Seldom seen in the wild, its total population is estimated to be fewer than 10,000 mature individuals. While the number of the cat is decreasing no single population is believed to be having more than 1,000 adults.

Taxonomy

Though clouded leopard is not included in the group of ‘Big Cats’ as it can’t roar like tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard (for detail see Wild Cats’ Origin — big cats), genetic studies have shown the animal is more closely related to big cat species than the smaller ones. While they are known as clouded leopards, they are not directly related to normal leopards.

Till 2006, it was believed that there was only one species of this animal. However, recent morphological and genetic researches have shown that there are two distinct species. The cats found on mainland Asia and Taiwan were given the traditional species name (Neofelis nebulosa) while those from Borneo and Sumatra named the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi). Furthermore, this also changed the number of subspecies. All nebulosa subspecies have been clubbed into one group, while the diardi populations seem to be split into two subspecies: N. diardi borneensis on the island of Borneo and N. diardi diardi on Sumatra.

Scientists believe the two subspecies diverged from each other about 1.5 million years ago due to geographic isolation as land bridges ceased to exist between the islands, probably because of the rising sea levels or volcanic activities. Ever since then the two species have neither met nor interbred. In fact, even though they may look similar, genetically a clouded leopard is more dissimilar to its sister species than a lion is to a tiger!

With regards to appearance, the Sunda clouded leopard has smaller and darker markings and a darker overall coat color. Whatever pictures we find today of the animal majority of them are from mainland nebulosa individuals, meaning thereby photos of the Sunda clouded leopard are much rarer. Wild Sunda clouded leopards were only first caught on video in early 2010.

The scientific name of the genus Neofelis is a composite of the Greek and the Latin words which means “new cat.”

Why this name?

Fur of the cat is of a dark grey or ochreous ground-color, often mostly obliterated by black and dark dusky-grey blotched pattern. This provides camouflage in the dappled light of forest habitat.  Head has black spots and the ears are black. Other characteristics include partly fused or broken up stripes running from the corner of the eyes over the cheek, along the nape to the shoulders and from the corner of the mouth to the neck. Stretched up blotches run down the spine and form a single median stripe on the loins. Two large blotches of dark dusky-grey hairs on the side of the shoulders are each emphasized posteriorly by a dark stripe, which passes on to the fore leg and breaks up into irregular spots. The sides are marked by dark dusky-grey uneven splotches bordered behind by long, slanting unevenly curved or looped stripes. These blotches form clouded pattern which has given the animal common English name. Its under-parts and legs are spotted, and the tail is marked by large irregular paired spots. In China the cat is known as the ‘Mint Leopard‘ because its spots also look like mint leaves. Melanism in these cats is not common.

Clouded leopards, a medium-sized cat, weigh between 12 and 23 kg. Males are larger at 80 to 110 cm with a 74 to 90 cm long tail. Their shoulder height varies from 25 to 40 cm. Females vary in head-to-body length from 69 to 96 cm, with a 60 to 80 cm long tail and weigh about 16 kg. Clouded leopard’s legs are short and stout, with broad paws. Canine teeth in these animals are exceptionally long — about 4 to 6 cm — and piercing. Upper being about three times as long as the basal width of the socket. They can live up to about 17 years in captivity.

Distribution and habitat

Historically, their range covered most of the Southeast Asia from Nepal and southern China through Thailand, Indonesia, and Borneo. However, this range has shrunk due to habitat destruction and poaching by humans.

Smallest of the large cats, they are now found in India, Bangladesh, Indochina, Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. They are extinct in Taiwan. In Bangladesh they occur marginally in mixed-evergreen forests in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the country. In Myanmar and Thailand their presence has been reported from relatively open, dry tropical forests. They prefer open or closed forest habitats as compared to other types.

In eastern India they have been recorded in Himalayan foothills up to an altitude of 1,450 m (4,760 ft). In the state of Assam, they have been observed in forests but have not been recorded in protected areas. They occur in some other states too, like northern West Bengal, Sikkim, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.

Clouded leopards were believed to be extinct in Nepal, according to the last published records of 1863. But in 1987–1988 four leopards were found in the country. These findings enlarged their known range westward suggesting that they are able to survive and breed in degraded woodlands and scrub previously supporting moist subtropical semi-deciduous forest.

Subspecies and their distribution

Presently, the following three subspecies of clouded leopard are recognized:

  • Neofelis nebulosa nebulosa (Griffith, 1821): This subspecies is found from Southern China to eastern Myanmar;
  • Neofelis nebulosa macrosceloides (Hodgson, 1853): This is found from Nepal to Myanmar;
  • Neofelis nebulosa brachyura (Swinhoe, 1862): It used to live in Taiwan. Today it is considered as extinct. The last confirmed sighting dates to 1989, when the skin from a small individual was found in the Taroko area.

Most talented climbers among cats

Most cats are good climbers, but the clouded leopard is near the top of its class. They are capable of climbing upside down underneath tree branches, hang from branches with their hind feet, and can even descend head first, like a squirrel. Numerous adaptations allow these cats to achieve these amazing arboreal skills. They have shorter and stout legs that provide leverage and a low center of gravity. Their extremely long tail acts as an excellent balancing aid. For grip their large paws are armed with sharp claws and specialized padding that conforms to the shape of the branch. The cat’s hind feet have flexible ankle joints that allow the foot to rotate backwards as well. They can climb on horizontal branches with their back to the ground and in this position make short jumps forward. When balancing on thin branches, they use their long tail to steer. They can easily jump up to 1.2 m (3.9 ft) high. Besides this, their sharp eyesight helps them judge distances well.

Apart from information gained from observing these animals in captivity little is known of their natural history and behavior in the wild. On the basis of information we had earlier clouded leopards could only be portrayed as rare, secretive, arboreal and nocturnal denizens of dense primary forest. Recent observations and studies suggest that they may not be as arboreal and nocturnal as earlier thought. They may use trees as day time rest sites but also spend a considerable time on the ground. Some daytime movement has been observed, which suggests that they are not strictly nocturnal but crepuscular. However, the time of day when they are active depends on their preys’ activity and the level of human disturbance. Their partly nocturnal and far-ranging behavior, their low densities, and the fact they inhabit densely vegetated habitats and remote areas makes their monitoring extremely difficult. Consequently, little is known about their behavior and status. The information available on their ecology is anecdotal and based on local interviews and a few sighting reports.

In captivity they have been observed scent marking by urine spraying and head-rubbing on various objects. It is presumed that they do this to mark their territory in the wild, although the size of their home ranges is unknown.

Like big cats, they do not appear able to purr, but they otherwise have a wide range of vocalizations, including mewing, hissing, growling, moaning, and snorting.

Modern ‘Saber tooth cat’

Besides the size, appearance, fur-markings and color, another distinctive feature of this cat is its unusual skull and long canine teeth, which are the largest (in proportion to body size) of any wild cat causing some experts to compare it with the extinct saber-toothed cat. Studies by Dr. Per Christiansen of the Copenhagen’s Zoological Museum have revealed connections between the two groups. His research into the skull characteristics of both living and extinct cats has shown that the structure of the clouded leopard skull bears distinctive resemblance to primitive saber-toothed cats such as Paramachairodus (before the group became highly specialized and developed enormous upper fangs). Both saber toothed cats and clouded leopards have massive gape, around 100 degrees, and various adaptations to support it. In comparison to this a modern lion can open its mouth only about 65 degrees. This suggests that one lineage of modern cats, represented now only by the clouded leopard, evolved some adaptations in common with the true saber-toothed cats.

Long canines also imply that the animal may hunt large prey in the wild in a somewhat different manner from other great cats. If we see saber-toothed cats they would bite prey through the neck, using their long teeth to sever nerves and blood vessels and strangle the windpipe, which would instantly kill the prey. This was a very different technique adopted by the living big cats that use a throat or muzzle grip to suffocate the prey. It is possible that clouded leopards use the similar technique used by the prehistoric cats.

Not much is known about their feeding ecology too. It is presumed that their prey includes both terrestrial and arboreal vertebrates. According to Pocock they are adapted for preying upon herbivorous mammals. The basis of this presumption is their powerful build, the deep penetration of their bite, attested by their long canines. Their confirmed prey species include Malayan pangolin, hog deer, slow loris, Indochinese ground squirrel and brush-tailed porcupine. In China their prey species include barking deer and pheasants. It is believed that they most likely hunt civets, birds and domestic livestock too.

Going by the list of clouded leopard’s prey species it seems that despite the fact that the animal is a great climber it does most of the hunting on the ground. It is known that they patrol their territory (like all cats) and may use logging roads for hunting and travelling. Their territories range from about 20-50 km.

Reproduction

Like most cats probably they are also solitary animals, unless associated with a mate while breeding or accompanied by cubs. They sexually mature around the age of 2 years. Mating can occur in any month, but in captivity most breeding occurs between December and March.

In captivity, they present a reproductive challenge. There is a high incidence of aggression between both the sexes, sometimes resulting in the death of female. This has made them one of the most difficult cats to breed in captivity. Present captive management practices include introducing the members of a pair quite early, prior to one year of age. This results in establishing more successful pair-bonds and lessening of aggression. Cubs are often hand-raised by keepers, rather than the mother. This depends on the temperament of the mother, the institution’s facilities for newborns, and the health of the babies.

A litter of one to five cubs (most often three) are born every year, and the young cats remain dependent upon their mother for about ten months. Estrus last 6 days on an average, estrus cycle averages 30 days. After a gestation period of about 100 days cubs are born. The cubs are blind and helpless when born, much like the young of many other cats. Their eyes open after 10 days. At the time of birth they weigh between 140 to 280 grams (4.9 to 9.9 oz). Contrary to adults, the new born kittens’ spots are “solid” — completely dark rather than dark rings. Cubs become active when they reach five weeks, and are fully weaned at around three months. They attain adult coat pattern at around six months, and probably become independent after around ten months.

In captivity they have an average lifespan of 11 years. One individual lived for about 17 years.

Threats

Major threat to clouded leopard is from habitat loss following large scale deforestation. The forests are experiencing rampant degradation due to industrial logging and the development of agricultural areas, including vast palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. Such degraded areas cannot support prey species nor provide habitat for clouded leopards. Many of the remaining forest areas are too small to ensure the long-term existence of clouded leopards.

Even the protected forest areas are suffering heavily. Rare woods such as ironwood or aloe are collected illegally and their products and oils are sold to international markets. Furthermore, wood collectors live off the land as they work, hunting for meat and displacing wildlife. This trade is so lucrative that these wood poachers often employ armed guards to accompany them.

Clouded leopards are increasingly becoming the targets of commercial poachers. Their claws, skin and teeth are used for decoration and clothing, bones and meat as substitute for tiger in traditional Asian medicines and tonics, and live animals for pet trade. Some of the poaching incidents have been documented, but all range states are believed to have some degree of commercial poaching. In recent years, considerable domestic markets existed in Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar. 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. Live animals are also sought by wildlife traders, destined to become pets or join the exotic zoos of wealthy collectors.

Stopping this wildlife trade is proving difficult. The participation of organized crime, corruption in the ranks of law enforcement, and a strong cultural tradition of consuming wildlife are significant obstacles to eliminating the activity. In addition, for local people with few alternative sources of income, the temptation to poach animals and harvest trees is often too great to resist.

In Myanmar, 301 body parts of at least 279 individuals, mostly skeletons and skins, were found in four markets surveyed between 1991 and 2006. Out of these, three markets are on the international borders with China and Thailand and they cater to international buyers, although the animal is completely protected under Myanmar’s national legislation. Effective implementation and enforcement of CITES is considered inadequate.

Conservation

Listed in CITES Appendix I clouded leopard is protected over most of its range. Countries like India, China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, Taiwan and Thailand have banned the hunting of the animal. In Bhutan it is not legally protected outside the protected areas. In Laos hunting is regulated. No information about its protection status is available from Cambodia. Despite these bans hunting is continuing in many of the countries, especially in India, Malaysia, and Thailand. It is listed as endangered in the United States under the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits trade in the animals or any parts or products made from them.

In captivity

After many failures keepers have learnt that introducing pairs at a young age gives opportunities to the animals to bond and breed successfully. It has been observed that when older adults are introduced as pairs usually the males kill the female, may be due to the stress. In March 2011, three cubs were born to two breeding females at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere in Nashville, Tennessee. In June 2011, two cubs were born at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. Four cubs were born at the Nashville Zoo in 2012. As of December 2011, 222 clouded leopards were believed to have existed in zoos around the world.

Cultural influence

The Rukai people of Taiwan consider clouded leopard to be their spiritual ancestor who led them to their homeland.

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