A Cat Clouded in Mystery

By Wai-Ming Wong, Ph.D.
Director, Small Cat Conservation Science

Clouded leopard night

The first-ever International Clouded Leopard Day is August 4, 2018, created to raise global awareness for the enigmatic species. This is sorely needed: Much of the information about the clouded leopard’s conservation status and needs — as well as the threats they face — remains shrouded in mystery.

Consider this your Clouded Leopard 101 class. 

Not many people would call “cloudies” big cats; physically, they’re medium-sized. But they form an evolutionary link between the big cats and the small cats, so they’re actually the smallest of the big cats. Big Cats hail from the subfamily Pantherinae, which splits into two genuses: Panthera (tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards) and Neofelis (Indochinese clouded leopard and the Sunda clouded leopard). Despite its name, it is not closely related to the leopard.  

Historically considered a single species, the clouded leopard was split into two distinct species — the Indochinese clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) — about 10 years ago based on mitochondrial DNA analysis, microsatellites, and morphology.

Phylogenic tree
The Pantherinae phylogenetic tree

The two species are similar in general appearance and size. They have long bodies, relatively short, robust legs with large feet, and very long tails. The head is long and heavily built, similar in overall shape and proportions to the Panthera cats. They weigh between 25-55 lbs, with females generally being lighter in weight than males.  Male clouded leopards are also longer in head to body length and reach up to 43 inches, while females can reach up to 37 inches. Clouded leopards have an exceptionally large gape (almost 90 degrees, compared to 65 degrees for the puma) and elongated canine teeth measuring up to 1.5 inches — relatively the longest of any living wild cat.

Clouded leopards are perfectly adapted to forest life. Their short legs and broad paws make them excellent at climbing trees and creeping through thick forest. Their long tails help with balancing and steering on thin branches. They can climb while hanging upside down under branches and descend trees head-first, although this has only been observed in captivity so far. They are also capable of jumping up to 4 feet in height.

While the two species are similar in appearance, the easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at their pelage.

Clouded leopard teeth

Both species have distinctive, large, cloud-shaped pelage patterns, but Sunda clouded leopards are overall darker, with grey to greyish yellow background fur and relatively small irregular blotches with thick, black margins. The Indochinese clouded leopards are generally paler and brighter with buff to rich tawny background color and very large blotches with narrower black margins.

Historically, Indochinese clouded leopards were widely distributed from the Himalayan foothills in Nepal, Bhutan, and India toward China, and then south through to Thailand and Malaysia. The Sunda clouded leopard only occurs on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. However, both species can now be found in isolated and fragmented habitat patches across their range.

Clouded leopards
A Sunda clouded leopard (top) and an Indochinese clouded leopard (bottom)

Clouded leopards depend on forests. They are highly arboreal and strongly associated with primary forests. However, like most big cats, they are relatively adaptable and occur in all kinds of dense, moist, and dry forest, peat-swamp forest, dry woodlands, mangroves, and even the Himalayan foothills. They’ve been known to use oil palm plantations, but data from camera traps suggests this is limited to the periphery of plantations.

Despite only having a handful of studies focused on the species, it is estimated there are less than 10,000 mature individuals of both species — and their populations are decreasing. The exact number is unknown, as very little research on the species has been conducted until now.

Both Indochinese and Sunda clouded leopards are listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, although it is unclear how reliable these designations are considering the scarcity of basic population information for the species.

Habitat loss represents the most significant threat to their survival. Poaching, either directly through the use of snares, or through the reduction of prey availability, also poses a significant threat to clouded leopards across their range.

Clouded leopard range map
Clouded leopard range map: Green = Indochinese clouded leopard; Red = Sunda clouded leopard

Southeast Asia — which accounts for most of the species’ current range — is currently undergoing the world's fastest deforestation rate: 1.2-1.3 percent a year since 1990. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s largest exporters of palm oil. As a result, most of the primary lowland forests have been converted to oil palm plantations, as well as other agricultural landscapes producing items like coffee, pulp, and paper.

As a result of this rampant deforestation, the clouded leopard’s range has significantly collapsed. I'd estimate the Indochinese species has lost approximately 64 percent of its historic range, and the Sunda species has lost about 56 percent. Both species now only exist in small, isolated habitat fragments.

Sunda clouded leopard marking its territory by scraping the substrate with the hind feet. (©Wai-Ming Wong/Panthera)

As tiger numbers dwindle, poachers and smugglers increasingly target other wild cats for the illegal tiger bone trade. Among the Asian wild cats, clouded leopards are increasingly coveted. They are being sold into the pet trade, to tourist attractions offering cat encounters, and to other profit-driven businesses. 

Clouded leopards of both species are hunted for the illegal wildlife trade — large numbers of skins have been seen in market surveys, and there is also trade in bones for medicines, meat for exotic dishes, and live animals for the pet trade.

Clouded leopard

Clouded leopards have decorative pelts, and their exploitation is well documented in several countries, including the infamous Tachilek market along the Thai-Myanmar border and Mong La market on the Myanmar-China border. The frequency of clouded leopard parts available at market indicates increased pressure from hunting. 

Recent research by colleagues at Oxford WildCRU found a 42 percent increase in the commercial trade of live clouded leopards from 1975 to 2013.

With fewer than 10,000 individuals left for both species, it is crucial we start implementing conservation actions specifically targeted to the species — rather than as a by-product of research derived from other charismatic species.  

To do this, we must identify priority clouded leopard core areas and connect them with wildlife corridors, strive for better management of protected areas, and work with the agricultural sector to develop more wildlife-friendly practices so that clouded leopards — and, indeed, other wide-ranging species — are able to safely navigate through these agricultural landscapes.

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