Clouded leopards live in the forests of Southeast Asia. The smallest of the big cats, their fur is dappled with dark, cloud-shaped markings ideal for camouflage.
Cloud leopards are secretive and rare in the wild, preferring to remain hidden from sight. Few people have glimpsed them either in their natural rain forest habitat or in captivity. But recently, the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington State, offered the public a first glimpse of four clouded leopard cubs. The quadruplets were born on 12 May 2015 to Chai Li and her mate Nah Fun.
Officially recorded as a species in 1821, the clouded leopard is almost as mysterious today as it was 200 years ago. Until 2006, there was thought to be a single species. But recent studies have shown that there are two, which diverged from each other 1.5 million years ago. As land bridges disappeared, possibly due to rising sea levels or volcanic disruption, geographic isolation meant that the original species evolved separately. Genetically, the clouded leopard today is more different from its sister species than a lion from a tiger.
The cats on mainland Southeast Asia and Taiwan retain the traditional species name (Neofelis nebulosa), while the cats from Borneo and Sumatra are known as the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi). In appearance, the Sunda clouded leopard has smaller and darker cloud markings and a darker coat.
The pupils of the clouded leopard’s eyes never get fully round like a big cat’s pupils, yet they never shrink to vertical slits like a small cat’s. Instead, they remain in an oblong shape. In relation to body size, the tail is the longest of any cat, which gives the clouded leopard the balancing skills of a tight-rope walker.
Clouded leopards mainly live in lowland tropical rainforest, but they can also be found in dry woodland and secondary forest. They have been spotted at elevations up to 9,000 feet in the Himalayas. Historically, their range covered most of Southeast Asia from Nepal and southern China through Thailand, Indonesia, and Borneo. But due to habitat loss and human poaching that range has been severely curtailed.
Like all wild cats, clouded leopards are carnivores. They are thought to hunt a variety of prey including birds, squirrels, monkeys, deer, and wild pigs. But virtually nothing is known of their social behaviour. They are likely solitary, except when breeding or accompanied by cubs. Once thought to be exclusively nocturnal, evidence suggests that clouded leopards may be active during the day as well.
There are a variety of threats to the survival of this most beautiful of large cats, including the destruction of their habitat, human encroachment, uncontrolled hunting, and the loss of natural prey. In Taiwan, the population has already been catastrophically reduced and at one time it was thought to be already extinct.
The destiny of this animal depends entirely on the actions of humans. It will be to our lasting shame if we do not take sustained measures to protect the Earth’s ecosystems and to conserve the kind of biodiversity that ensures the survival of one the world’s many endangered species – the fabulous clouded leopard.