Site icon Conservation news

Clouded leopards traded more than tigers in some illegal markets

  • Clouded leopards are being increasingly traded for commercial purposes, and their skins and other body parts are flooding illegal wildlife markets, according to a recent study.
  • In some illegal wildlife markets in southeast Asia, clouded leopards are more commonly traded than tigers, researchers have found.
  • Japan and U.S.A are the most active importers of live clouded leopards, while China and Thailand are the most active exporters, the study found.

Clouded leopards are being increasingly traded for commercial purposes, and their skins and other body parts are flooding illegal wildlife markets, according to a recent study published in Biodiversity and Conservation. In fact, in some illegal wildlife markets in southeast Asia, clouded leopards are more commonly traded than tigers, researchers have found.

Fewer than 10,000 mature individuals remain of each of the two clouded leopard species found in Southeast Asia — the mainland species (Neofelis nebulosa) and the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), which occurs only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

These attractive big cats with distinctive cloud-like markings on their coats, and thick and plush tails, are gaining popularity in commercial markets, authors write.

To investigate the extent of the clouded leopard trade, researchers, Neil D’Cruze and David Macdonald, from University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, scanned through reports filed with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), published scientific literature, and interviewed experts who study clouded leopards.

Clouded leopards are in danger. They are the most traded big cats in some illegal wildlife markets, according to study. Photo by Charles Barilleaux, Wikimedia Commons.

They found that between 1975 and 2013, CITES received 316 records of clouded leopard trades. Of these over 70 percent records referred to trade in live clouded leopards, while the rest included trade in skins, bones, skulls, and other body parts.

Japan is the most active importer of live clouded leopards for commercial purposes, researchers found, followed by the U.S.A. The most active exporters include China and Thailand, which have large captive populations of big cats.

Although CITES allows trade of clouded leopards that have been bred in captivity, captive breeding programs in both these countries have been criticized, the researchers write. “Broadly, there are concerns that these operations are stimulating demand for cheaper more preferable wild caught specimens, creating a legal loophole for the illegal laundering of wild animals and their derivatives,” they add.

The study also found that many CITES records were either incomplete, or had other irregularities. For instance, none of the records clarified the species of clouded leopard that was being traded, and had ambiguous entries such as those regarding countries of origin.

Such irregularities in reporting suggest wild-caught animals were probably being traded under the guise of captive-bred animals, the researchers speculate. “The legal trade in captive-bred animals can serve as a cover for illegal trade activity, such as poaching and passing off wild-caught animals as captive-bred,” D’Cruze told National Geographic.

The study also found that clouded leopards are being increasingly sold as exotic pets for recreational purposes. And many of these big cats are being illegally traded online.

Clouded leopards are being increasingly sold as exotic pets for recreational purposes. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

“Illegal activity involving clouded leopards can also be openly observed online,” researchers write. “In particular, we were directed to a Malaysian online media group that also shared evidence of other poaching activity including other species such as Asian palm civets (Paradoxurus hermaphrodites) sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) and boar (Sus scrofa).”

The rise in clouded leopard trade could be due to dwindling tiger numbers, some experts warned. Traders could be using clouded leopard body parts as an alternative to those of tigers. However, more research is needed to ascertain whether this is indeed the case, the authors write.

Data on clouded leopard trade is limited and hazy at best. But such paucity of data is not grounds for complacency, the authors write.

There is a need for “researchers to focus their efforts on gathering socioeconomic data that will provide detailed insights into the type, volume, trade routes and attitudes of poachers, traders and consumers involved in this illegal trade activity,” they add.

Citation: