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The clouded leopard: conserving Asia’s elusive arboreal acrobat

  • The clouded leopard is not closely related to the leopard, but has its own genus (Neofelis), separate from the big cats (Panthera). In 2006, the single species of clouded leopard was split in two: Neofelis nebulosa is found on the Asian mainland, while Neofelis diardi, the Sunda clouded leopard, occurs only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
  • Another subspecies native to Taiwan (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura) is believed to be extinct, after none were found in a camera trapping survey conducted between 1997 and 2012.
  • Originally, researchers found it difficult to breed the animals in captivity, since mates tended to kill each other. A variety of breeding techniques have however allowed zoos around the world to begin mating the animals successfully, to create and maintain a genetically viable captive population.
  • Clouded leopards are incredibly elusive, and only with the advent of new technology, including camera traps and radio collars, have scientists been able to begin defining clouded leopard ranges, distribution, populations and threats. Public outreach is also helping build awareness around the plight of these Vulnerable wild cats.
A clouded leopard in a treetop perch. The Asian species is arboreal, and well known for its climbing abilities. Photo by Bill Wood courtesy of the Clouded Leopard Consortium in Thailand

If quizzed on what we know about Asia’s clouded leopard, most of us would be stumped. But ask an expert who works with these wild cats, and you’ll get an earful. “They are phenomenal athletes. They can climb like no cat I’ve ever seen. They can hang from one paw; hang upside down. I have seen them do stuff that is just amazing!” exclaims Bonnie Breitbeil, the Clouded Leopard SSP Coordinator and International Studbook Keeper for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

The animal is beautifully marked and has fascinating adaptations to suit its arboreal lifestyle: “It can go down headfirst down a tree — only a few cats in the whole kingdom can do that,” notes Lon Grassman, one of the first researchers to trap and radio collar a wild clouded leopard. “They have rotating ankles,” he adds. They also have very long teeth compared to the size of the head, prompting some to call them modern-day saber tooth cats. “Evidence suggests that their super-long teeth help them grasp prey up in the trees where they can’t use their paws to help,” he says.

And while Breitbeil gets all technical around it when she calls these felines paedomorphic, what it comes down to is this: to us humans, clouded leopards simply look adorable. “They still look very young when they’re older,” she explains. “The shape of their faces and their ears still have that babyish look.”

Clouded Leopard SSP Education Advisor Karen Povey, who works at Tacoma, Washington’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, recalls the first time she met one. “None of us had ever worked with a clouded leopard before and we were instantly charmed by him,” she says. “Everyone was smitten.”

Clouded leopards generally trigger the “adorable” response in humans. Here a healthy trio in captivity: male and female parents, plus their female cub. They were all were reared at a private facility in France. Photo by Thierry Plaud

Three subspecies

Despite its common name, the clouded leopard is not closely related to the leopard at all. It is, in fact, found in its own genus (Neofelis) separate from the big cats (Panthera).

Until recently only one clouded leopard species was recognized, but in 2006, based partly on analysis of mitochondrial DNA, the single species was split into two. Neofelis nebulosa is found on the Asian mainland, from the Himalayan foothills of Nepal through mainland Southeast Asia into China. Neofelis diardi, the Sunda clouded leopard, occurs only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Another subspecies native to Taiwan (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura) is believed to be extinct, after none were found in a camera trapping survey conducted between 1997 and 2012.

Based on the DNA evidence, the two surviving species are estimated to have split over a million years ago, and despite their similar appearance and behavior, are no closer genetically than any two other of the world’s big cat species to each other.

Clouded leopards have very long teeth compared to the size of the head, and have been dubbed modern-day saber tooth cats. “Evidence suggests that their super-long teeth help them grasp prey up in the trees where they can’t use their paws to help,” researcher Lon Grassman says. Photo by L. Grassman courtesy of CKWRI

The mainland clouded leopard is currently classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and its numbers have been going down due to habitat loss and hunting. The Sunda clouded leopard is also classified as Vulnerable, with its habitat in Borneo and Sumatra rapidly being lost to oil palm plantations.

Captive breeding challenges

Clouded leopards are currently being bred quite successfully in captivity, but figuring out how to get that process right in the first place wasn’t easy. Zoo researchers faced one serious problem when the animals were originally paired for breeding: “mates” had a tendency to kill each other.

When AZA studbook keeper Breitbeil first got involved with the species, she did a survey of available research and the data clearly showed that the clouded leopard displayed more mate aggression than other cat species, but she wanted to find the cause. “We started delving into why, focusing on behavior,” she recalls. “The anecdotal information was that the [animals] tend to be a lot more stressed than other cats — that they don’t react to change very well. Was this somehow exacerbating mate ggression?”

Research into the species’ stress hormones confirmed that levels were high. “Then we started asking what do the [clouded leopards] need? What are we not giving them?”, remembers Breitbeil. A joint project between US and Thai zoos looked at one of the most basic aspects of animal husbandry — the enclosures in which the cats were being kept. Thailand had a large number of clouded leopards in a variety of different impoundments, so it was possible to evaluate variables.

Can you spot the clouded leopard in this photo? Hint: these felines like it up high. Also note the extreme height of this enclosure; zookeepers have found that these arboreal cats are more aggressive and stressed when kept in cages that lack height. Photo by Bill Wood courtesy of the Clouded Leopard Consortium in Thailand

Some clouded leopards were kept next to larger predators, like tigers. “We could take baseline data there, and then move them and see if that changed their stress levels, and [we] found that [it] definitely did,” Bretbeil says. “So we started changing things like [what animals] they were nearby and giving them a lot more height — that seems to be a huge factor, providing enclosures that have appropriate height.”

While reproduction successes increased after these changes were made, keepers were still reluctant to put clouded leopards together to breed for fear of injury or death. So a couple of other unusual breeding strategies evolved that also improved mating success rates.

One method was to hand-raise the animals. This is something zoos normally don’t do because hand-raising can prevent baby animals from socializing with members of their own species; it is usually only done when a mother is unable to raise its young naturally. But with the clouded leopard, hand-raising did help. Being raised by humans seemed to reduce the animals’ stress levels, making them more at ease with their captivity.

Zookeepers also started pairing animals up as youngsters to create mating bonds — another highly unusual approach. In some cases they’ve even matched up trios: bonding a male and two females, to help assure a better success rate. “Most animals you would never manage that way, and we don’t think [clouded leopards] pair bond like this in the wild,” Breitbeil explains. Natural or not, these techniques are proving effective. “This has helped to the point that I have more cats than I have homes for them,” says Breitbeil.

The hope of artificial insemination

Once the urgently important clouded leopard captive breeding challenge was addressed, researchers faced new problems. While zoos were now, for example, able to employ hand-raising to help achieve and maintain a genetically viable captive population, that technique also made it impossible for those human-acclimated animals to ever be returned to the wild.

A clouded leopard cub feeding. Hand-raising is generally not used with zoo animals as it eliminates any possibility for release to the wild. But hand-raising of clouded leopards seems to reduce the animals’ stress levels, making them more at ease with captivity, and less likely to kill mates when bred. Photo by Bill Wood courtesy of the Clouded Leopard Consortium in Thailand

Not that a release program is an immediate prospect — far too little is known to date about wild clouded leopards to begin doing restorations. But to keep future conservation options open, alternative breeding approaches are needed and now being tested.

“Some zoos are mother rearing, but keepers are interacting a lot with the offspring — we’re calling that social rearing. That’s [a program] in its infancy right now,” Breitbeil says. “We need to find out: will [these offspring] make successful mates?”

Another approach being tried is artificial insemination (AI). This method could increase genetic diversity without creating potential behavioral conflicts. AI would also allow for the breeding of clouded leopards that are too aggressive to safely breed by more natural means. “If they’re aggressive, their genetics just don’t get represented [in new births] right now,” Breitbeil says.

AI in clouded leopards is hard to accomplish because the feline’s reproductive physiology is different from other cats. Most feline species are either induced ovulators (mating causes eggs to be released), or they possess a regular mating cycle. Clouded leopards do something that’s sort of in-between. Under natural conditions, they only come into estrous at certain times of year, but the animals also may need to mate for ovulation to occur. Clouded leopards are also extremely sensitive to ovary control drugs, needing doses smaller than those used for a domestic cat.

Max, a captive clouded leopard, goes upside down. These cats are renowned for their amazing canopy acrobatics. Photo by Bill Wood Courtesy of the Clouded Leopard Consortium in Thailand

It’s way too soon to call AI a success in clouded leopards. “That would be [an] ideal [reproductive strategy], but we’re not putting eggs in that basket right now, since it took 25 years to repeat the [AI] success [with the clouded leopard] they had at Smithsonian 25 years ago,” Breitbeil explains. And even if AI and other captive breeding techniques do prove successful, no one knows how these artificial selection methods will impact the future of the species, especially if captive clouded leopards are ever reintroduced to the wild.

Wild mysteries, new technologies

While much has been learned about managing clouded leopards in captivity, very little is known about them in the wild. They’re hard to find, and few researchers study them.

To address that need, Karen Povey and her team at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium started the Clouded Leopard Project in 2000. “We were a group of people intrigued by this animal, and concerned that no one was out there advocating for it. We said, ‘we could sit here complaining that no one is doing anything, or we could step up and do something,’” she recalls. “We decided that we wanted to do some fundraising to support research. We investigated who was doing that; at the time, we could only find one person.”

That one researcher was Lon Grassman of Texas A&M University. Grassman was gathering basic natural history data on previously unstudied Asian carnivores, and other little known animals for his dissertation. Working in Thailand, he was trying to catch any wild cat species possible. As a result, he became one of the first two scientists ever to live-trap a clouded leopard.

Lon Grassman was one of the first researchers to trap and radio collar a wild clouded leopard. The animals are notoriously difficult to find in the wild and track. Photo by L. Grassman courtesy of CKWRI
A wild radio collared clouded leopard awaits release. Photo by L. Grassman courtesy of CKWRI

“When you put live traps out, you never know what you’re going to capture; the [traps aren’t] species specific,” Grassman explains. “You catch anything that wants to eat a chicken. I was thrilled to death to have captured four clouded leopards, as well as other species. Basically, we didn’t even know for sure [what the clouded leopard’s] home range size [was at that time] — I was able to get home range sizes,” says the researcher.

Clouded leopards are superlatively elusive, and other than when he trapped an animal, Grossman almost never saw one, or any of the other cat species he was studying, for that matter. He recalls a time when he was radio tracking a study animal. “I knew I was literally ten feet from it. I got so close that my radio signal was blaring, and I just said, ‘where is this cat?’” Suddenly a clouded leopard “exploded” out of the tree above him. “I was right under that cat. He jumped to the ground and ran off. I was that close, and I didn’t know where he was.”

Technological advances, especially camera traps, have been very important for increasing knowledge of clouded leopards. Researchers set up camera traps in pairs along abandoned and overgrown logging roads, which offer easier routes for the animals to travel than does the dense brush. Individual cats can be identified by their coat patterns, so once photos of both sides are obtained, it’s possible to know if the same animal is being seen repeatedly. Using statistical modeling, scientists are now learning something about clouded leopard species density and connecting that data to the quality of habitat. Such studies are helping scientists better understand the threats being experienced by these little-seen felines.

Andrew Hearn’s recent dissertation work used camera trap and radio collar data from sites in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, to investigate how the Sunda clouded leopard is responding to human habitat disturbance.

A clouded leopard close up: the last thing its treetop prey ever wants to see. Photo by L. Grassman courtesy of CKWRI

“Our study provides the first, albeit tentative evidence, that Sunda clouded leopard population density will be negatively impacted by hunting pressure, forest fragmentation, and recent logging activity, and that well managed selectively logged forest may support higher densities than primary forest,” says the researcher. Forest canopy has been found to be important for clouded leopard movement, which makes sense considering the species’ climbing abilities. Likewise, movement is impaired by large open spaces, like those found on oil palm plantations.

Along with habitat destruction, hunting remains a serious threat. “This species is a classic example of one that is being decimated by illegal trade, yet [it is] not a focus or priority for conservation organizations,” notes Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia. Shepherd is coauthor of a 2014 Asian wild cat trade study which found that the clouded leopard was the most common species observed in markets in two Myanmar border towns.

Unfortunately, Shepherd says, clouded leopard trafficking has gained little attention compared to the trade in tigers and other so-called flagship species.

Gaining financial support, building awareness

While progress has been made regarding clouded leopards in captivity and in the wild, there’s still much researchers want to know about these animals. But there is some good news on that front.

Povey says that some larger clouded leopard research projects are getting good financial support from grants and universities, though smaller projects often can’t afford the necessary equipment. “We get funding requests with some regularity from Nepal and northern India,” she explains. “They’re passionate people who know there’s a need to understand the animal in their region. Those are the people who are struggling. You [need] a certain number of camera traps to make it a statistically valid study, and with each costing three or four hundred dollars, that can be insurmountable.” Radio collars are even more expensive, due to their long life batteries, and cost around $2,500 each.

Ganja, a clouded leopard in a private facility in France. When originally bred in captivity, clouded leopards tended to kill their mates, but innovations by zookeepers have resulted in successful breeding in captivity. Photo by Thierry Plaud

Povey also wishes conservationists had more funds to support public education in range countries. One of her projects created a teachers’ curriculum and children’s book about the clouded leopard for use in Thailand. Originally bilingual, it was published in English/Thai, but then was additionally published in English/Malay and English/Bahasa Indonesia editions.

What’s particularly interesting about the book is that it’s not just about the animal and its place in the ecosystem, but also about a researcher who studies it. “In many of these places, often people don’t value what researchers do, and working with wildlife is not seen as a prestigious job,” Povey says. So one goal was to show what researchers do. “If [people] encounter researchers or see cameras, they’ll [now] understand what [the equipment is] for,” she explains. “Originally a lot of people thought [the cameras] were law enforcement tools, and would steal or break them.”

More importantly, Povey hopes this educational outreach will begin to involve local people more deeply in conservation, instead of all the work being done by outsiders. “It’s critical that the people who live [in range countries] start to do more of this research,” she says, and one place to begin is with the youngsters: “We want kids to be inspired, [to know] that you can have a job working with wildlife and science that is really good for your community.”

Review questions for educators

These questions can help provide a framework for exploring topics presented in this story.

  • What is a clouded leopard?
  • Where does the clouded leopard live?
  • What is the clouded leopard’s habitat?
  • Why is the clouded leopard endangered?
  • How are conservationists working to protect the clouded leopard and its habitat?

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