Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Plight of the Clouded Leopard

The plight of the clouded leopard
Southeast Asia's most secretive and charismatic cat
Published: 25/08/2009 at 12:00 AM

Newspaper section: Learningpost

I recently had the pleasure of visiting fellow zoologist Rick Passaro at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Si Racha district, Chon Buri province. He manages the Thailand Clouded Leopard Consortium in partnership with the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Nashville Zoo, Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plan, the Zoological Park Organisation of Thailand and HKS Designers and Consultants Co in Bangkok.

One of the goals of this project is to breed clouded leopards in order to ensure that a diverse gene pool exists in the captive population. This is somewhat of a tall order as this is probably one of the most-difficult cat species to breed in captivity. They are also studying the behaviour, husbandry and hormone secretions of these elusive cats in order to try to understand exactly what makes them tick.

A young clouded leopard puts its best paws forward for the photo shoot.

What are clouded leopards?
Clouded leopards are one of the largest "small" cats, often characterised by not only their size, but their inability to roar like lions, leopards, jaguars and tigers. They exist in forests and jungles throughout Southeast Asia where two subspecies survive to the present day, with a third Taiwanese subspecies (Neofelis nebulosa brachyurusi) that is probably extinct in the wild.

There is also a separate, yet very closely related, clouded leopard species that lives on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. That community has diversified enough due to geographical isolation to warrant classification as a separate species.

The clouded leopard is named for its beautiful coat pattern. According to early discoverers, its coat appears cloud-like due to the very distinctive markings on its fur, which coincide with the patterns on its skin.

They have the scientific name Neofelis nebulosa, which means new (neo) small cat (felis) that looks cloudy (nebulosa). How apt! Clouded leopards are a kind of halfway stop between the big cats and small cats.

The males are very powerful, and have big cat-like heads and the largest canines of all cats, compared to body size. This is very intimidating when they are hissing at you. I can attest to that!

The males are much larger than the females and can grow up to 40cm at the shoulder and weigh up to 23kg or more. Females are often two-thirds to half the size of the males, which can cause problems when breeding. The males can become very aggressive during mating and can do serious harm, sometimes even killing the females during the process.

Passaro agrees with me that the size difference between males and females may allow females to escape aggressive males as they are much more nimble and quick when moving through the trees.

Clouded leopards are predominantly arboreal and have superb climbing skills. They can also rotate their ankles 180 degrees, which enables them to climb down trees head first!

Other features to help them in their arboreal lifestyle include a tail that is nearly as long as its body and is used for balance. It also has short and very powerful limbs that provide agility, strength and ease of movement through branches, and huge paws with large claws for a perfect grip. Its large forward-facing eyes enhance its binocular vision, which help it to judge visual-distances. Their large eyes also help them with vision at night as they are mainly nocturnal.

Clouded leopards are opportunistic hunters, which means they will eat nearly anything they can catch, from birds, monkeys, lizards and snakes to possibly larger prey, such as young wild pigs or deer. What I noticed on my visit is that they are also very vocal cats.

When the adults saw Passaro approaching, they produced a prusten, a sound unique to cats that indicates familiarity and happiness. It sounds like they breathe out while making a repeating hum, which sounds very peculiar! They also mew, squeak, growl, hiss. They are very "conversational".

Threats to population in the wild

The problem with clouded leopards is that almost nothing is known about them in the wild. They are very secretive, nocturnal and live in inhospitable environments, so studying them has proven to be difficult. Only six clouded leopards have ever been radio collared, and very few have been photographed on camera traps; therefore, their populations are virtually unknown.

Rick Passaro holds his furry friends at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo.

What is certainly known though, is their numbers are declining. With the tragic rate of deforestation, the number of habitats available for these cats is shrinking.

Also, the beautiful coat that affords them great camouflage in the forest is sought after by collectors of pelts in the illegal wildlife trade. Their body parts are used as medicines and they are also eaten as food. The illegal trade is rife and this is a very serious threat to the wild population.

Organisations like WildAid and the wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic, are taking great steps to clamp down on the illegal trade, but the trade remains active. The slogan is true: When the buying stops, the killing can, too.

The pet trade is also a problem. Although the young cats are extremely cute, when they become adults, they are very powerful and retain their wild instincts. Their teeth and claws are potentially lethal weapons against an owner, but sadly, people only see the cute cubs and naively buy them. This often leads to a death sentence or living in horrible conditions.

Clouded leopard consortium
Rick Passaro and his team are doing wonders for the clouded leopard gene pool and are actually breeding more clouded leopards than they can handle! I am confident in saying that Passaro's team have had more breeding success than any other group in the world.

He has sent breeding pairs to zoos in the US and Singapore as well as those within Thailand. He is very selective over which cats breed with which, in order to keep the gene pool as diverse as possible.

Currently, he has cats of all ages, from three weeks to two months, to juveniles, and all the way through to adults over 12 years old.

Along with the breeding programme, Passaro is attempting to gain more information on their reproductive behaviour. Faecal samples from the cats are collected, recorded, frozen and sent to the US for hormone analysis.

One goal is to try to understand whether the cats have a certain breeding period and another is to see when females come into oestrus. This research can also help ascertain stress levels in the cats as well as yield other useful information. The more they can find out, the better it will be for the future of clouded leopards, both in the wild and captivity.

My friend who visited the Khao Kheow Open Zoo with me asked if their decline in population was simply a natural cycle. The answer is no. If it were not for human interference, the clouded leopard population would be stable, if not increasing. Their decline is exclusively human induced.

It is therefore imperative that we have people like Rick Passaro. He gives his time to make sure that these magnificent cats have a future. His programme relies solely on donations. Contact him at rickpassaro@yahoo.com

David Canavan has an MSc in Behavioural Ecology and is the Head of Secondary at Garden International School. David is fascinated by science and loves animals, especially the dangerous kind! You may contact David at davidc@gardenbangkok.com


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