Remarkable Leopard Thought to Be Extinct Spotted for First Time in Over 35 Years
A sign of hope for the elusive species.
In 2013, the Formosan clouded leopard was declared extinct, after avoiding detection by humans for years. The predatory cat was finally spotted twice in an isolated part of Taiwan, after a years-long project dedicated to capturing the animal on camera failed to do so.
The population is listed as extinct on the IUCN Red List– the world’s most comprehensive database of the conservation status of biological species.
The Formosan clouded leopard, or just the clouded leopard, was last spotted officially in 1983. However, many close to the study of the animal are unsurprised by the spotting. According to National Taitung University’s Department of Life Science professor Liu Chiung-hsi, the leopard is deliberately elusive, and skilled at avoiding human contact.
Its namesake cloud-like fur markings double as camouflage, and the leopard has developed physical traits that help it disguise as well. Liu Chiung-hsi has believed that the animal still exists even before the recent spotting, and that it has kept a low profile as a survival mechanism.
An Incredibly Talented and Fascinating Animal
According to One Earth, a nonprofit organization working to accelerate collective action to solve the climate crisis, the Formosan clouded leopard is an incredible climber, reaching great heights in forest trees.
It is also exceptionally nimble at staying above ground, having adapted to a life in the trees by developing rotating ankles for agility, and long teeth to help grasp prey up where they can’t free their paws to help. The animal can also climb headfirst down a tree, something very few cats in the animal kingdom can do.
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“They are phenomenal athletes. They can climb like no cat I’ve ever seen. They can hang from one paw; hang upside down. I have seen them do stuff that is just amazing!” said Bonnie Breitbeil, the Clouded Leopard SSP Coordinator and International Studbook Keeper for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Pictured below, the clouded leopard is not closely related to the leopard, and has its own genus–Neofelis–separate from the big cats. In 2006, the single species of clouded leopard was split in two. Neofelis nebulosa is found on the Asian mainland, while Neofelis diardi, the Sunda clouded leopard, occurs only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The cat recently believed to be extinct is yet another subspecies (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura)– only found in Taiwan.
Humans Have Jeopardized the Species
Specifically, it was rangers — appointed by the Paiwan Tribe — of the Alangyi Village who claimed to see the animals scrambling up trees in Taitung County. The Paiwan Tribe, which calls the leopard “Li’ uljaw,” wants to help make it easier for the cats to show themselves. A group of village elders urged the Forestry Bureau to stop activities such as logging, which are understandably keeping the rare leopards at bay.
Until then, they will remain on the extinct species list. Perhaps it is a good thing that the leopard has avoided human contact, as Liu Chiung-hsi said he had spoken with hunters of the Bunun people, an aboriginal group native to Taiwan, who admitted to capturing and killing an undisclosed number of clouded leopards in the late 1990s.
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Though many humans fawn over the appearance of the leopard, perhaps human interest in the animal has done more harm than good. However, this rare sighting has given hope that the clouded leopard population may be more resilient than previously thought.
The clouded leopard may be elusive and rare, but it is a vital part of the ecosystem and its conservation is crucial for the health of the forest and all its biodiversity; the discovery of this clouded leopard has sparked renewed conservation efforts, and for good reason.