CatSG

Mainland clouded leopard

Neofelis nebulosa

IUCN Red List: Vulnerable

Weight: 16-23 kg
Body length: 69-108 cm
Tail length: 61-91 cm
Longevity: 15-17 years
Litter size: 1-2 cubs

Description

The clouded leopard was previously considered a single species, but has recently been divided into two based on molecular (mitochondrial DNA, microsatellites and chromosomal) and morphological (pelage and craniodental) analyses. The mainland clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) occurs in Southeast Asia on the mainland, the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) only inhabits the islands Sumatra and Borneo. Before this division into two species, there were four subspecies of N. nebulosa described: Neofelis nebulosa diardi  inhabiting Borneo, Sumatra and the Batu Islands (now N. diardi), N. n. macrosceloides occurring in Bhutan, Burma, India and Nepal, N. n. nebulosa recorded in Cambodia, China, Laos, Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, and N. n. brachyura endemic to the island of Taiwan. The data currently available does not support the distinction of any subspecies of the Mainland clouded leopard and it is therefore considered as a monotypic species.

The clouded leopard is of intermediate size (comparable to a small leopard) with a tail nearly as long as the head and body, and relatively short legs. Males are larger than females. The clouded leopard has some very special characteristics: Its legs are short, stout and end in broad paws. The hind legs are much longer than the front ones and its tail is exceptionally long (typically equivalent to head-body length), plush and enables it to skilfully balance on thin tree branches. Its skull is quite long, and, together with its sister species the Sunda clouded leopard, its canine teeth are proportionally longer than those of any other extant cat. Also, the patterns of its coat with cloud-like rosettes with dark outlines and lighter centres on a light background are unique and gave the clouded leopard its name. The background colour of the coat can vary from yellowish brown, ochraceaous, tawny to silvery grey to earthy brown or dark grey. Two long stripes run along the spine and the tail has 6 crosswise stripes. The underside is white or pale tawny, its limbs and underbelly are marked with large black ovals and the back of its neck is conspicuously marked with two thick black bars.

The clouded leopard has body and behavioural characteristics which fall between the ones of the small and the large cat species. For example, it cannot roar and can only purr like small cat species but its feeding behaviour, grooming and its body postures are similar to those of large cat species.  

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Bangladesh (Bengali)

lamchita, gecho bagh

Chinese

yun bao

French

panthère longibande, panthère nébuleuse

German

Nebelparder

India

lamchita, gecho bagh

Indonesia

macan dahan

Laos

sua one

Malaysia

maca dahan, harimau dahan

Malaysia (Iban)

engkuli

Myanmar (Kachin; Shan)

thit kyaung, thit-tet kya (tree-top leopard), in kya (shagraw kai; hso awn)

Nepal (Khas)

lamchitia

Spanish

pantera longibanda, pantera nebulosa

Taiwan (Rukai, Paiwan)

rikulau

Thailand

seua lay mek

Status and Distribution

The clouded leopard is considered Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. There is little scientific information available on the clouded leopard in the wild. In some parts of its wide range, it may be common but very little is known about its population trends, since it inhabits typically very dense vegetation and is very elusive. Its habitat is generally fragmented.

Clouded leopards are distributed from the eastern and southern Himalayan foothills in Nepal, through Bhutan and India to Myanmar, southern China, Peninsular Malaysia and throughout Indochina (Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia) and Peninsular Malaysia. High declines were detected in China, Myanmar and Vietnam. Its current status in China is poorly knwon. It had a wide distribution south of the Yangtze but there are very few recent records. It has also been reported as relatively common in the Chinese province Jiangxi and Anhui in the past. It has been recorded in central western and southern Sichuan and in the Namcha Barwa region in Tibet. A rough population estimate for southwest China based on home range size estimations from Thailand, and on camera trapping, scat collection and sightings between 2005 and 2007 resulted in an estimate of 70 individuals in southern Yunnan.

The presence of the clouded leopard in Bangladesh is uncertain. It may still occur marginally in the country in mixed evergreen forests, but little of this forested habitat remains. The previously described subspecies of the clouded leopard occurring on the island of Taiwan, is thought to be extinct. In India, it has been reported from the states Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Mizoram, Sikkim and northern parts of West Bengal. The clouded leopard occurred once throughout the countries in Indochina and Peninsular Malaysia but nowadays its range is largely restricted to forested and protected areas. 

Extant distribution area of the mainland clouded leopard (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015).

Habitat

Camera trap picture of a Mainland clouded leopard.

The clouded leopard mainly occupies the deepest parts of evergreen forests and is most strongly associated with primary tropical forest. However, the clouded leopard also inhabits other habitat types, such as secondary and logged forests as well as coniferous forests, coastal hardwood forests, grassland and scrub. In Burma and Thailand, it has been reported from relatively open and dry tropical forest. Studies in Thailand showed a preference for forest over more open habitats.

The clouded leopard has been recorded up to 1,450 m in the Himalayan foothills, up to 2,174 m in the Annapurna Conservation Area and up to an elevation of 3,000 m in Taiwan.

Ecology and Behaviour

The clouded leopard is solitary and mostly active at night or crepuscule, but seems, in some areas, to also be active during part of the day. It is a remarkably secretive creature. The clouded leopard is a highly arboreal species which moves easily through trees. It is an excellent climber, one of the few cats which can also climb headfirst down a vertical trunk and hang from branches by their hind feet. The clouded leopard uses the trees to rest, but it likely also forages in them. Although the clouded leopard is such a good climber, it also can travel over quite long distances on the ground In Thailand, male and female clouded leopards seem to have similar home range sizes between 30-40 km² with intensively used core areas of 3-5 km². Home ranges of females and males overlap substantially and also home ranges of males seem to have quite high overlap. It marks its territory with scent.

The age at first reproduction is around 26 months for females and for males. Estrus lasts for approximately 6 days, the estrus cycle for 30 days and gestation for 87-99 days. Age at the last reproduction is 12 to 15 years. 

Prey

The clouded leopard preys on diurnal and nocturnal prey. It feeds on arboreal and terrestrial vertebrates such as small deer, monkeys, squirrel, porcupines, pangolin, wild boar and birds. Occasionally, they hunt domestic poultry and goats but are apparently not interested in carrion. In other studies, the clouded leopard mainly took primates (pig-tailed macaques, gibbons) and preyed as well on muntjac and argus pheasant. In the Phu Khieu National Park in Thailand, it preyed on hog deer, slow loris, bush-tailed porcupine, Malayan pangolin, Indochinese ground squirrel and some other species.

Main Threats

The main threat to the clouded leopard is habitat loss and fragmentation through deforestation and land conversion into agricultural areas. Its habitat in Southeast Asia is undergoing the fastest deforestation rate mainly due to the expansion of oil palm plantations. In some areas, the prey base of the clouded leopard is seriously overhunted for local meat markets. Another issue is direct exploitation. The clouded leopard is threatened through illegal hunting for its decorative fur, and its teeth and bones for the traditional medicine market. Large numbers of clouded leopard skins have been observed in the illegal wildlife trade in South-east Asia. Pelts have been reported on sale in urban markets from Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Thailand including from the Tachilek market algon the Thailand-Myanmar border and from the Mong La along the Myanmar-China border. There are indications of increased pressure from hunting on the species. Its meat is also used for exotic dishes. There also seems to be some illegal trade of captive live animals for the exotic pet market.

Conservation Effort and Protection Status

The clouded leopard is included in CITES Appendix I and protected by national legislation over most of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Hunting is regulated in Laos but it has no legal protection outside protected areas in Bhutan. It occurs in many protected areas.

Proper measures are required to minimize threats such as designing and implementing regional management plans and strategies. Habitat destruction must be diminished as much as possible and law enforcement and protection against illegal hunting has to be improved for successful conservation of the clouded leopard. Raising awareness could become an important measure as well. In China, some environmental education of local school children and adults has taken place in order to improve public awareness of the species.

There is a need for more investigation and studies of the ecology, distribution and status of the clouded leopard. The increased use of camera traps has led to a better understanding of its distribution and recent research has improved the knowledge about its population status. However, there is still basic ecological information missing, the amount of information on its distribution and status is still not satisfying and more research is needed to can take appropriate conservation measures.