project news

The Case of the Clouded leopard

News item submitted by Flora O'Brien
News item dated 20 Dec 2010


Fears have been sparked concerning Bornean clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) populations in Brunei. Widespread habitat loss and poaching throughout the clouded leopard’s range in the lowland rainforests of Southeast Asia has caused severe population declines in the feline’s populations. According to WWF, the clouded leopard cat’s preferred habitat has declined by 10% annually since 1997. Furthermore, leopard’s pelts fetch high prices on the black market throughout Asia, despite the illegality of it under Brunei’s Wildlife Protection Act. The cat’s bones are also highly sought-after in the Asian medicine trade, whilst the meat features in the menus of several Thai and Chinese restaurants.

There is hope yet that the clouded leopard may be saved. Last year, a clouded leopard cat cub was caught by members of a tribe in Bangladesh, a country where the cat was previously feared to have become locally extinct, and several clouded leopard have been photographed, mainly by camera traps. One photo was taken in August by a local in the Belait District of Brunei, and it depicts the clouded leopard standing on a log in a clearing. Although it was reassuring to know that the cat still persists in the area, concerns were raised that it was seen outside of its preferred habitat, suggesting a lack in the availability of suitable habitats. 

Clouded leopard are the smallest of the big cats, weighing on average between 14 and 23 kilograms. They are a highly arboreal species, even being able to hang upside down from trees. It was only recently, in 2007, that Bornean clouded leopards were declared a new species, as they had formerly been grouped with the mainland species, Neofelis nebulosa. Their timid and elusive behaviour makes sightings rare, and consequently few studies have been done on the species. Meanwhile, captive breeding programmes have had a low success rate since males often kill their mates, and females frequently neglect their cubs.

Habitat restoration and more stringent protection would seem to be the most promising strategies to save clouded leopard cat populations from further declines. In Costa Rica, where several big cat species persist (e.g. jaguars and pumas), Frontier researchers have been assisting in a re-vegetation project which aims to restore previously cleared areas back to their natural state. Such programmes, accompanied by stricter legislation and better monitoring, may prove invaluable in conserving big cat populations.

For a chance to look for the Asian mainland clouded leopard, and other threatened species, go to the Cambodia Tropical Wildlife Conservation and Adventure project and to search for signs of big cats in Central America visit the Frontier Costa Rica Big Cats, Primates and Turtle Conservation project.