SUBSPECIES : Sunda or Sundaland clouded leopard

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Sunda clouded leopard (Illustration published 1834 in William Jardine's The Natural History of The Feline)

The Sunda clouded leopard or Sundaland clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) is a medium-sized cat found in Sumatra and Borneo. Cousin of Neofelis nebulosa (clouded leopard found in mainland Asia and Taiwan) in 2006 it was classified as a separate species, distinct from its continental relative.

Earlier, the species was known as the Bornean clouded leopard — a name publicized by the WWF in March 2007. The organization quoted Dr. Stephen O’Brien of the U.S. National Cancer Institute as saying, “Genetic research results clearly indicate that the clouded leopard of Borneo should be considered a separate species”. It is locally known as “Macan Dahan” in Indonesian language and “Harimau Dahan” in Malay meaning “tree branch tiger”.

In 2008, the IUCN classified it as vulnerable, with a total effective population size estimated to be fewer than 10,000 mature individuals, and a decreasing population trend.

Diversion of species

The genetic analysis indicates that the two species diverged some 1.4 million years ago, after having used a now submerged land bridge to reach Borneo and Sumatra from mainland Asia.

The split of Neofelis diardi subspecies matches roughly with the devastating ‘‘super-eruption’’ of the Toba Volcano in Sumatra 69,000–77,000 years ago. A possible scenario is that Sunda clouded leopards from Borneo recolonized Sumatra during periods of low sea levels in the Pleistocene, and were later separated from their source population by rising sea levels.

The species was named Felis diardi in 1823 by Georges Cuvier to honor the French naturalist and explorer Pierre-Medard Diard, based on a drawing and skin allegedly from Java. In 19th century the species was designated both clouded and Sunda clouded leopards, colloquially “Diard’s Cat“.

The species was long regarded as a subspecies of the clouded leopard, and named Neofelis nebulosa diardi. In December 2006, the journal Current Biology published two articles, in which two distinct species of clouded leopard were reclassified and redefined:

  • Neofelis nebulosa from mainland Asia and
  • Neofelis diardi from the Malay archipelago, except Peninsular Malaysia.

Results of a morphometric analysis of skin and fur of fifty-seven animals sampled throughout the genus’ wide geographical range revealed that there are two distinct morphological groups, differing primarily in size of their cloud markings. In another study, DNA samples from the Bornean and mainland Asia populations were used in molecular genetic analysis, revealing differences in mtDNA, nuclear DNA sequences, microsatellite and cytogenetic variation, thus  strongly supporting a species-level distinction between Neofelis nebulosa and Neofelis diardi.

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Characteristics and behaviour

Weighing around 12 to 25 kg (26 to 55 lb) the Sunda clouded leopard is the largest felid in Borneo. With stocky body canine teeth of the animal are two inches long, which, in proportion to the skull length, are longer than those of any other extant feline. Its tail can be as long as its body, aiding balance. Cat’s coat has irregularly-shaped, dark-edged oval markings which appear like clouds, hence its common name.

The habits of this cat are largely unknown because of its secretive nature. It is assumed that generally it is a solitary creature and hunts mainly on the ground and uses its climbing skills to hide from dangers.

Range of Sundaland Clouded Leopard; Green - Sumatran clouded leopard; Red - Borneon clouded leopard

Distribution and habitat

As mentioned above it is probably restricted to Sumatra and Borneo. In Sumatra, Sunda clouded leopards appear to be more abundant in hilly, montane areas. It is not known whether they are still found on the small Batu Island close to Sumatra or not. In Borneo, they are found in lowland rainforest, and at lower density, in logged forest. Records in Borneo are below 1,500m (4,900 ft).

The first documented film of the animal was taken in June 2009 by a group of scientists including Robert Martin and Andreas Wilting in Sabah, one of 13 member states of Malaysia, and is its easternmost state. Located on the northern portion of the island of Borneo it is the second largest state in the country after Sarawak.

In Sumatra, Sunda clouded leopards occur most probably in much lower densities, about 1.29 individuals per 100 km2 (39 sq mi), than on Borneo. One explanation for this lower density might be that on Sumatra they occur sympatrically with the tiger, whereas on Borneo clouded leopards are the largest carnivores.

The fossils of this cat have also been found on Java, where it perhaps became extinct in the Holocene, the last 11,700 years of the Earth’s history.

Threats

Malaysia and Indonesia has seen deforestation on very large scale. This poses a great threat to Sunda clouded leopards as they are strongly arboreal and depend heavily on forests for their survival. Since early 1970s, much of the forest cover has been cleared in southern Sumatra, particularly in lowland tropical evergreen forest. Fragmentation of forests and agricultural encroachments has rendered wildlife vulnerable to human pressure. Borneo has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates. While in mid-1980s there were forests on nearly three quarters of the island, by 2005 forest cover was reduced to mere 52 per cent. Both jungles and land make way for human settlement. Illegal trade in wildlife and forest-fires are also major contributing factors for the decline in the clouded leopard population.

Conservation

Listed on CITES Appendix-I, the species is fully protected in Sumatra, Brunei, Kalimantan, Sabah and Sarawak. These cats occur in most protected areas along the Sumatran mountain spine, and in most protected areas on Borneo.

Since November 2006, the Bornean Wild Cat and Clouded Leopard Project based in the Danum Valley Conservation Area and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve aims to study the behavior and ecology of the five species of Bornean wild cat — leopard cat, bay cat, marbled cat, flat-headed cat and Sunda clouded leopard — and their prey, with a focus on the clouded leopard. It also aims to investigate the effects of habitat alteration; increase awareness about the Bornean wild cats and their conservation needs, using clouded leopard as a flagship species and also investigate the threats facing the Bornean wild cats from hunting and trade in Sabah.

The Sundaland clouded leopard is one of the main cats of the project Conservation of Carnivores in Sabah based in northeastern Borneo since July 2008. The project team intends to assess the conservation needs of these felids and develop species specific conservation action plans together with other researchers and all local stakeholders.

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