Upon first glance, this title may seem somewhat confusing and in some ways that was my intention, however I hope that by the end of this article it begins to make a little more sense. Today’s post will focus on a cat which happens to be exactly what the title says, a Leopard but not a Leopard. The Clouded Leopard, or Neofelis nebulosa is a big cat found in the Himalayan foothills, forests of China and the rest of S.E Asia. Whilst not strictly belonging to Panthera the Clouded Leopard is a big cat and belongs to the other genus within Pantherinae, the sub family within Felidae where big cats can be found.
If you remember from my first post, Felidae can be split into Pantherinae (which includes all big cats) and Felinae ( all non Pantherine cats such as Cheetah, Cougar, Hyena and Domestic Cats). Pantherinae is then further split into Panthera (Tigers, Lions, Leopards, Jaguar, Snow Leopards) and Neofelis. You can see a clearer illustration of this below where I compare the classifications of a Lion, Clouded Leopard and Cheetah.
Species: Panthera leo
Species: Neofelis nebulosa
Species: Acinonyx jubatus
There are two recognised species within Neofelis, one being the topic of this post Neofelis nebulosa (Clouded Leopard) and the other being Neofelis diardi (Sunda Clouded Leopard). N diardi is a species of big cat found only in Borneo and Sumatra, and was recognised as a separate species as recently as 2006. Separated by the seas from the rest of mainland Asia around 1.5 million years ago, the two species of Clouded Leopard have never merged since and remain to this day two completely genetically isolated populations. A study by three biologists Kitchener, Beaumont and Richardson in 2006 (there’s a link at the bottom of the page) found that the two species of Clouded Leopard are as different from one another as Lions are from Tigers.
Clouded Leopards differ from actual Leopards in a number of ways, however I will outline three of the most distinct in the following paragraphs. First, and perhaps the most notable difference between Clouded Leopards and Panthera is their size. Fully matured male Leopards (such as ones you find in Africa) reach an average weight of around 31kg, whereas mature Clouded Leopards clock in at around half that weight, 15kg. The two species of big cat also exhibit strikingly different fur patterns. Clouded Leopards posses much larger blotches/rosettes on their fur than their Panthera counterparts, as you can see below. The first image being the African Leopard and second the Clouded.
Clouded Leopards also posses a slightly different skull anatomy to any other of the big cats. Unlike their Panthera counterparts, Clouded Leopards have much longer and sharper upper Canine teeth. Along with a narrower palate (roof of mouth) their possession of these teeth have earned Clouded Leopards their nickname of modern Sabre toothed cats, as their teeth resembled a similar pattern to those of the ancient Smilodon (sabre toothed cats). There is a common misconception among some that because of their dental arrangement, Clouded Leopards are the most closely related cat to ancient sabre tooth’s however this is not the case. Smilodon is an extinct sub family of cats and Clouded Leopards are no more closely related to Smilodon than any other species of extant (living) cat.
I’ll be sure to cover the Biology of the Clouded Leopard in a later post, however as I’ve now given the species a sufficient enough introduction, the remainder of this entry will draw attention to the current threats facing the Clouded Leopard populations. As of 2015, the Clouded Leopard was classified as Vulnerable by the ICUN Red List. With increasingly fragmented habitats and an ever increasing threat from illegal hunting there are thought to be fewer than 10,000 left in the wild, a number which is decreasing year on year.
Whilst many countries are experiencing a gradual decline in Clouded Leopard numbers, there is a drastic and rapid fall in their populations in Burma, Vietnam and China, with the species already extinct in Taiwan. With their pelts being high in demand all over South East Asia, the illegal wildlife trade represents one of the biggest threats to the species’ survival. Studies have found a large amount of Clouded Leopard coats at markets along the Thai-Burmese border and China-Burmese border, correlating with figures which suggest Clouded Leopards are the most in commonly traded species in the SE Asian illegal wildlife market (at least 482 species traded in 22 surveys between 2001 and 2014).
With an exceptionally elongated tail for its size, Clouded Leopards are highly arboreal and they are most commonly associated with forest environments. They can be found in a variety of forest habits ranging from their preferred primary evergreen tropical forests through to deciduous and secondary logged forests. Alongside their primary forest habitat, Clouded Leopards have been observed in hugely differing habits from the foothills of the Himalayas to tropical mangrove swamps and open grasslands of the lower SE Asian plains. Whilst belonging to two separate genera, Clouded Leopards share many of the same types of habitat as Tigers and regular Leopards, however a study by the Zoologist, Grassman in 2005 found that Clouded Leopards are found in higher densities in areas where Tiger and Leopard populations are lower.
With forests in SE Asia dissapearing at a rate of 1.3% per year (the fastest rate of deforestation in the world), many of their remaining habitat fragments are too small in size to sustain Clouded Leopard populations in the long term. This loss of habitat, along with the demand for Clouded Leopard body parts is resulting in a dramatic year on year decrease in their numbers. Whilst there are thought to be around 200 Clouded Leopards in zoo’s and sanctuaries across the globe, successful breeding programmes are thought to be difficult due to the natural aggression of males towards females in the wild, a trait which has been replicated in captive Clouded Leopards. Unfortunately such displays of aggression on occasion end with the death of the female Leopard thus making the Clouded Leopard one of the most difficult cats to breed.
Due to their requirements, top level predators such as big cats are often the first animals to suffer when human populations expand and the Clouded Leopard is no exception. If current trends continue, and the SE Asian governments fail to implement stringent enough controls on deforestation and the illegal poaching of Clouded Leopards, then another species will tragically be making its way onto the endangered list sooner rather than later.