By Dr. Becker
Illegal poaching of tigers for body parts used in traditional medicine has decimated the species. There are now only 3,200 tigers, or less, left in the wild as a result. Unfortunately, tigers’ demise has led poachers and smugglers to increasingly target a different big cat — the clouded leopard.
Clouded leopards, which are named for their cloud-like spots, are one of the smaller “big cats,” weighing in at up to 50 pounds as adults.
Researchers from University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit recently found a 42 percent increase in the commercial trade of the animals from 1975 to 2013, according to data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).1
The cats are being increasingly bred in captivity for the pet trade and tourist attractions, and although trade is legal among captive-bred clouded leopards, it’s thought some operations may serve as cover-ups for illegal trading of wild-caught leopards.
U.S. Is the Most Active Exporter of Clouded Leopards
Many are not aware that exotic animals represent a lucrative business in the U.S., where up to 20,000 big cats are kept as pets and, as National Geographic reported, “it’s not hard to find big cat encounters offered at zoos, fairgrounds, and other private tourist attractions.”2
Unfortunately, there is little oversight into how clouded leopards are being bred, raised and traded. These animals, in particular, suffer when in captivity, as they are extremely vulnerable to stress and will pluck their fur, chew their tails and may become unnaturally aggressive when raised in captivity.
In addition, a study published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation points to many mysteries, “legal loopholes,” and likely additional illegal activity surrounding global trade in clouded leopards. They wrote:3
“We report an apparent shift toward commercial trade in captive bred clouded leopards, trade irregularities that point toward possible laundering of wild caught animals, and document the presence of individuals on ‘tiger farms’ in south-east Asia and a ‘lion park’ in South Africa.
We found CITES records contradictory and incomplete, with data on source country particularly lacking … As a precautionary measure, we support calls to extend existing bans on Asian big cat trade so that they include commercial trade in captive bred individuals.
… [A]n energetic search has revealed that specific information regarding clouded leopards is lacking.
We argue that this is not grounds for complacency, but rather suggests a need for research into trade dynamics, cooperation between national enforcement agencies, improved compliance with trade data management systems, the destruction of private held stockpiles and the revision of existing legal frameworks to prevent illegal trade in these and other threatened wild felids.”
Clouded Leopards Are a Threatened Species
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List categorizes clouded leopards as a vulnerable species, with populations decreasing. It’s thought that only about 10,000 clouded leopards exist in the wild.
Further, according to IUCN, the cumulative reduction in their area of occupancy, and therefore their population size, is estimated at 30 percent or more in the past two decades.4 Forest loss and degradation, followed by poaching, account for the bulk of the population declines.
IUCN noted that habitat loss due to commercial logging and conversion to oil palm plantations is a particularly grave threat.
If current deforestation rates continue on the island of Borneo, for instance, by 2020 37 percent of the remaining forest will have a greater than 25 percent risk of being deforested and 13 percent will have a greater than 50 percent chance of being lost.
According to IUCN, “This deforestation will not only reduce the area of available habitat for the Sunda Clouded Leopard but it is also likely to increase the fragmentation of its populations.”5
There is concern, too, that as wild tiger populations continue to decline, poachers may increasingly turn to clouded leopards as targets, further threatening their already vulnerable numbers.
IUCN noted, “Poaching, either directly through the use of snares, or through the reduction of prey availability by the poaching of game species, poses a significant threat, both in Sumatra and Borneo.” National Geographic continued:6
“Are clouded leopards going to be the next target if we are not able to step in and save tigers?’ said Neil D’Cruze, Ph.D. one of the study’s authors and head of research at World Animal Protection, a London-based nonprofit.
In some places, including Myanmar, the trade in clouded leopard teeth, bones, and skins far outpaces that of tigers, the traditionally favored source of big cat parts for spiritual and medicinal purposes.
More research is needed, the study concludes, to figure out if clouded leopards are indeed being targeted on a broader scale as a substitute for tigers and tiger parts on a broader scale.”
Clouded Leopards Remain Shrouded in Mystery
It’s not only clouded leopard trade activity that’s largely a mystery; as a whole, the clouded leopard remains one of the least studied big cats. Little is known about how the animals behave in the wild, as they are elusive and rarely spotted.
It’s thought, however, that clouded leopards are probably solitary animals and though no studies have quantitatively investigated clouded leopards’ diet, it’s thought they eat a variety of small to medium-sized prey, including deer, pigs, porcupines and primates.
It’s also believed that clouded leopards are primarily nocturnal, although they may also be active during certain times of day. What is known is that clouded leopards are excellent climbers and spend much of their time in trees. According to National Geographic:7
“These big cats can even hang upside down beneath large branches, using their large paws and sharp claws to secure a good grip. Clouded leopards have short, powerful legs equipped with rotating rear ankles that allow them to safely downclimb in a headfirst posture — much like a common squirrel.”
Unfortunately, the gaps in data about clouded leopards have hampered the development of much-needed conservation actions. As the featured study revealed, not enough is yet known about the threats posed to clouded leopards by illegal hunting and trading. Both IUCN and the authors of the study are calling for increased research in this area to protect this vulnerable species.