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Clouded Leopard - Neofelis nebulosa
Topic Started: Mar 31 2012, 07:37 PM (3,473 Views)
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Clouded Leopard - Neofelis nebulosa

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The Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is a medium-sized cat, 60 to 110 cm (2 ft to 3 ft 6 in) long and weighing between 11 and 20 kg (25 to 44 lb). It has a tan or tawny coat, and is distinctively marked with large, irregularly-shaped, dark-edged ellipses which are said to be shaped like clouds, hence both its common and original scientific name. Because of its distinct skull structure, it is considered sufficiently different to be the only member of its genus. The Clouded Leopard has not been recorded in Java since Neolithic times and is also thought to be extinct in the wild in Taiwan: the last confirmed sighting of a clouded leopard there was in 1983.

Physical characteristics

The Clouded Leopard has a stocky build and, proportionately, the longest canine teeth (2 in) of any living feline. This led early researchers to speculate that it preyed on large land-dwelling mammals. However, while remarkably little is known about the natural history and behavioural habits of this species in the wild, it is now thought that its primary prey includes arboreal and terrestrial mammals, particularly gibbons, macaques, and the Proboscis Monkey, supplemented by other small mammals, deer, birds, porcupines, and domestic livestock.

In conjunction with the fact that its major prey animals live in trees, the Clouded Leopard is an excellent climber. Short, flexible legs, large paws, and keen claws combine to make it very sure-footed. The Clouded Leopard can possess a tail as long as its body, further aiding in balance. Surprisingly, the cat can climb while hanging upside-down under branches and descend tree trunks head-first.

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Range, Habitat and Taxonomy

It ranges through southern China, the eastern Himalayas, north-east India, south-east Asia, and the Indonesian archipelago but has not been recorded in Java since the neolithic times. It is thought to be extinct in Taiwan. The last confirmed sighting of a clouded leopard there was in 1983 and this sub/species was characterised by its relatively much shorter tail.

Preferred habitat is tropical and subtropical forest at altitudes up to about 2,000 metres (6,500 ft), however it is sometimes found in mangrove swamps and grassland.

For fifty years the Clouded Leopard was traditionally regarded as a monotypic genus with four subspecies:

Neofelis nebulosa brachyurus: Taiwan (presumed extinct in the wild)
Neofelis nebulosa diardi: Borneo, Sumatra, (Java - absent since Neolithic times)
Neofelis nebulosa macrosceloides: Nepal to Myanmar (Burma)
Neofelis nebulosa nebulosa: Southern China to eastern Myanmar
However, recent molecular genetic analyses (mtDNA, nuclear DNA sequences, microsatellite variation, and cytogenetic differences) have revealed that there is a strong case for reclassification and the defining of two distinct species of clouded leopard - Neofelis nebulosa (mainland Asia) and Neofelis diardi (Indonesian archipelago).

This case for two clouded leopard species based on genetic distinction that is equivalent to, or greater than, comparable measures among other Panthera species (lion, tiger, leopard, and jaguar) is also strongly supported by the geographical variation revealed by morphometric analyses of the pelage (coat colour and patterns) between clouded leopard in Mainland Asia and in Indonesia (Borneo and Sumatra); again providing a compelling case for reclassification into two distinct species N. nebulosa and N. diardi.


The Clouded Leopard is a tree dweller, and has a squirrel-like agility like the Margay of South America. In captivity, the Clouded Leopard routinely hangs by its hind legs with its long tail swinging for balance and runs head-first down tree trunks. Little is known about its behaviour in the wild, but it is assumed that it is highly arboreal and that a favoured hunting tactic is to drop on prey from the trees.

The habits of the Clouded Leopard are largely unknown because of the animal's secretive nature. Due to the lack of evidence for a pack- or pride-society like that of the Lion, it is assumed that it is a generally solitary creature. Certainly it interacts with other Clouded Leopards while engaged in activities relating to mating and rearing young. While it was once assumed that the Clouded Leopard was active only at night, the cat has now been observed during the day.

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Females give birth to a litter of 1 to 5 cubs after a gestation period of about 85 to 93 days. The young are blind and helpless to begin with, much like the young of many other cats. Unlike adults, the kittens' spots are "solid"—completely dark rather than dark rings. The young can see within about 10 days of birth, are active within 5 weeks, and probably become independent at about 10 months of age. The Clouded Leopard reaches sexual maturity at two years of age and females are able to bear one litter each year. Adults in captivity have lived as long as 17 years: in the wild, they have an average 11 year lifespan. These figures give one hope that the Clouded Leopard will be able to increase its numbers with careful management.

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Despite these facts, captive breeding programs met with little success in their early stages, largely because the females were frequently killed by aggressive males; largely due to ignorance of courtship activity among these cats in the wild. Experience has taught keepers that carefully selected pairs of Clouded Leopards introduced and given opportunities to bond often breed successfully, although this is more art than science and takes great patience to achieve.

Carefully regulated introductions between prospective mating pairs and breeding programmes that take into account the requirements for enriched enclosures with adequate space to permit climbing, provide and stimulate natural behaviour, remove sources of exposure and minimise stress combined with a feeding programme that fulfils the proper dietary requirement of these cats have proven more successful in recent years. Cats born in captivity may one day supplement and bolster threatened populations in the wild.

Conservation and threats

Because the Clouded Leopard's habits make it difficult to study, reliable estimates of its population do not exist. Habitat loss due to widespread deforestation and hunting for use in Chinese medicinal preparations are thought to be causing populations of the Clouded Leopard to decline. Only 6 Clouded Leopards have ever been radio collared and their territorial movements monitored and recorded by scientists using radio telemetry. All of these cats were studied within Thailand. Almost all that is known of the Clouded Leopard comes from studies of the cats in captivity and apart from anecdotal accounts very little is known of the clouded leopards' natural history, ecology and behaviour in the wild throughout its range.

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, lists the Clouded Leopard as an Appendix I species. This means that the Clouded Leopard is among the most endangered of all species. CITES prohibits international trade of Appendix I species except for singularly important reasons such as scientific research. The United States also lists the Clouded Leopard under the Endangered Species Act, further prohibiting trade in the animals or any parts or products made from them. In the countries of its native range, hunting of the Clouded Leopard is prohibited, however these bans are very imperfectly enforced.

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Edited by Taipan, Nov 10 2017, 08:02 PM.
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First-ever population estimate of the mysterious marbled cat from continental Asia revealed

by Shreya Dasgupta on 6 October 2017

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Marbled cat captured by a camera trap in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram, India. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at the University of Oxford.

  • For the first time, scientists have estimated the density of the marbled cat in continental Asia.
  • The researchers also estimated a density of about five clouded leopards per 100 square kilometers in Dampa Tiger Reserve in India, which they say is the highest recorded density of clouded leopards in Asia.
  • The seemingly high densities of marbled cats and clouded leopards in Dampa could be because larger cats like leopards and tigers are rarer in the area, researchers say.

Several wildcats that trudge through the tropical forests of South and Southeast Asia still remain a mystery.

The house-cat sized marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), for instance, is one of the most secretive and little-known wildcats occurring in the region. Scientists have caught glimpses of the strikingly patterned cat in images and videos captured by motion-sensitive camera traps, but they still know very little about the cat’s population numbers or what threatens its survival in the wild. The only population density estimate for these cats is known from the island of Borneo.

Now, scientists have the first-ever estimate of population density of the marbled cat from continental Asia.

In a study published in the Journal of Mammology, researchers Priya Singh, affiliated to Researchers for Wildlife Conservation (RWC) in Bangalore, India, and David W. Macdonald of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, have also estimated the population density of the elusive clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa).

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Clouded leopards are extremely elusive animals. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

To get to the numbers, Singh and her team set up a grid of 148 camera traps in the rugged terrain of the Dampa Tiger Reserve in the state of Mizoram in northeast India. The most difficult part of the field work, Singh said, was to ensure the safety of her team “in an environment rife with incidents of kidnapping, and camera thefts and damage.”

From the photographs captured by the cameras, the team identified 10 individuals each of the marbled cat and the clouded leopard (coat patterns of both wildcats are unique to each individual). Finally, the study estimated a density of five marbled cats per 100 square kilometers (~38.6 square miles), making it only the second such estimate from any part of the species’ range.

The researchers also estimated a density of about five clouded leopards per 100 square kilometers in Dampa, which they say is the highest recorded density of clouded leopards in Asia.

The seemingly high densities of marbled cats and clouded leopards in Dampa could be because larger cats like leopards and tigers are rarer in the area, Singh said.

“That apart, the landscape surrounding our study area in Dampa is undergoing vast scale land-use changes triggered by conversion of land for monocultures of palm-oil, and an expansion of area under frequent jhum cultivation,” she added, referring to a form of slash-and-burn agriculture. “This in-turn could have resulted in an artificial inflation of clouded leopard numbers in the adjoining relatively well-protected core area of Dampa that formed our study area.”

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Clouded leopard captured by a camera trap in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram, India. Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at the University of Oxford.

“The science of this study is excellent,” said Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, who was not involved in the study. “And I believe that these are probably two of the best density estimates that have been obtained for these species to date.”

However, Rabinowitz added that he would hesitate to call the clouded leopard density “one of the highest in Asia”.

“First of all the density is comparable to another study, and there are so few estimates that have been done, that I am not certain that this is a high density at all, versus perhaps an optimal or carry capacity density,” he said. “Also, I think that this study was done better than previous work, so while I think these density estimates stand as an excellent benchmark, we need much more data before making relative comparisons.”

Singh agreed that while the density estimates for the two cats seem high compared to those from other parts of their range, the actual numbers are still on the lower side.

“A density estimate of [around] five per 100 square kilometers is indeed very surprising for a small carnivore, found in a forested habitat with relatively high prey presence,” said Singh.

Data like these are, however, very important when trying to understand carnivore interactions or for planning conservation efforts, said Rabinowitz.

“These densities are also important because they show that in relatively intact forest areas, these secretive, little known species can survive in good numbers,” he added.


Journal Reference:
Singh P and Macdonald DW (2017) Populations and activity patterns of clouded leopards and marbled cats in Dampa Tiger Reserve, India. Journal of Mammalogy, Volume 98, Issue 5, 3 October 2017, Pages 1453–1462, DOI:10.1093/jmammal/gyx104.

The rapidly declining tropical forests of Asia support a diversity of felid species, many of which are rare and little known. We used camera traps in Dampa Tiger Reserve (TR), Mizoram, northeastern India, to estimate population density and describe activity patterns of 2 rare felids, the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata). With a survey effort of 4,962 trap nights, we obtained 84 photo-captures of clouded leopards and 36 of marbled cats. We used spatially explicit capture-recapture methods to estimate population densities of both species. Using the Bayesian approach implemented in SPACECAP, we derived estimates of 5.14 (± 1.80 SD)/100 km2 for clouded leopards and 5.03 (± 2.07 SD)/100 km2 for marbled cats. Using camera-trap images, we compared diel activity patterns and activity overlaps for these 2 rare felids, together with 3 other sympatric carnivores, by estimating a coefficient of overlap between species. Among felids, clouded leopards and golden cats (Catopuma temminckii) displayed the highest overlap in activity, whereas marbled cats and leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) showed the lowest, with marbled cats being primarily diurnal and leopard cats nocturnal. Our study provides the first density estimates from continental Southeast Asia for marbled cats and one of the highest recorded densities for clouded leopards. These results are of special significance since Dampa sustains an ecosystem that has in recent times undergone near extirpation of large predators.

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Fatal Clouded Leopard Attack

On 21st December, our vets were awakened at dawn by the urgent call of Pak Cobe, an orangutan keeper. That morning, Pak Cobe had gone into the Forest Quarantine area, and discovered a young orangutan dead in her cage. Both her arms were chewed off; her chest torn open. We found footprints, claw marks and animal hairs nearby, and tooth and claw marks on her body. From these and the nature of the injuries, we concluded she had been attacked by a big cat, most likely a clouded leopard which is the only large carnivore found in Tanjung Puting National Park.

There was nothing we could do for her; we immediately notified the Park Authorities and focused on increasing site security for staff and orangutans. We shifted young orangutans indoors immediately; set about reviewing security, commenced all-night patrols, added spotlights and strengthened the undersides of cages to prevent access. Forest police worked with our staff to build a trap in an effort to capture the leopard. Numerous villagers joined our night patrols on their own accord, and the amount of support we received was both unexpected and humbling.

The savagery of the attack caused deep shock. We have young children and babies at the post, and a reaction among some quarters was to get the Forest Police to hunt and shoot the leopard. Happily however this has been averted. We pointed out that the leopard was only following its instincts; no human lives have been lost; there is plenty of scope for harm-free methods such as trapping, tranquillising and transferring the animal to less populated areas. The clouded leopard is also an endangered species which should be protected. Yes, we grieve for the orangutan who was lost and we understand the risk to humans; however we cannot take a life for a life.

To date, we have not succeeded in trapping the leopard. We will continue with our attempts; we will also do all we can to better protect our orangutans and our staff. We have discontinued work at our reforestation swamp site for the time being, as staff must go through dense forest to reach this site; work will not recommence until we are more confident staff will not be placed at risk. We wish to thank staff, visitors, Forest Police, villagers at Desa Sei Sekonyer and the Park Authorities for their support during this difficult time.

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