Cloaked in cloud like patterns they traverse the forest canopy like no other cat, their beautiful coats helping to keep them perfectly camouflaged whether hanging by their back feet from the trees, or padding silently across the rain forest floor. Rarely seen in the wild the clouded leopard is both acrobat and mystery.
Despite the fact that so little is known about clouded leopards they have often been neglected when it comes to conservation efforts, but thanks to organizations like S.P.E.C.I.E.S. this graceful and threatened cat is being given the attention and support it so desperately needs.
I recently spoke with founder and director of S.P.E.C.I.E.S. Dr. Anthony J. Giordano, who I met at the Jackson Hole Conservation Summit, to discuss his organization and work with clouded leopards and why we must start to focus on their conservation now. We also talk about captivity, palm oil, poaching and, how people at home can help support their work to ensure that the smallest of the big cats is around for generations to come.
Tell me a little about your organization’s name and how you came up with it
I was trying to come up with a brand and organization, and I think my mind was subconsciously working on different names, ideas, acronyms and what they might entail. I remember waking up one morning feeling very clear-headed that the name species was something. I was able to find meaning in that acronym that encapsulated what I wanted to do and what I thought there was a niche for. S.P.E.C.I.E.S. made a lot of sense and it is something that people will remember, but it’s also who we are and what we do.
Our domain name carnivores.org was chosen because I wanted us to be found by people who didn’t know they were looking for us. I also thought it would be a better way to be found as it describes who we are in one word. Now S.P.E.C.I.E.S. as brand is synonymous with carnivores.org.
Why did you choose the clouded leopard for your logo?
It’s not a coincidence that I chose the clouded leopard as they symbolically represented all of these unanswered questions that I had about carnivore ecology and evolution. I had a particular fascination for a clouded leopard painting when I was younger which served as an inspiration for the logo and I like that the clouded leopard in our logo is perched up high looking down surveying the terrain, which is also symbolic of who we are as an organization and where we need to be in order to accomplish our goals and objectives.
Additionally, I saw S.P.E.C.I.E.S. as being a leader in trying to answer important questions about the clouded leopard and leading in their conservation because there weren’t a lot of organizations doing that. As the smallest of the big cats they are not often the priority and they kind of fall in between the gaps when organizations are deciding what species to focus on. This has done us a disservice with respect to knowing what this cat is, where it comes from and what its needs are in the modern world and larger conservation context.
You work with a variety of different carnivores and wild cats. Why was the clouded leopard the focus of your presentation at the conservation summit?
I was invited specifically to Jackson Hole to talk about clouded leopards and, it had a lot to do with prior conversations I had with the organizers of the cat summit which happened to be when we launched Project Neofelis (Neofils is the genus name for clouded leopards) which was around International Biodiversity Day in May of 2017. It was a very ambitious effort for us to try to establish a project, whether it was a survey to answer basic questions, a community conservation project or maybe a combination of these elements, that focused on clouded leopards as there is such an absence of information on them. In addition, we want to also try to establish one of these projects in every range country where clouded leopards occur.
How many different species of clouded leopards are there?
There are currently two distinguished species of clouded leopards and this distinction was made in 2006. We have the Asian mainland or Indochinese clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and then we have the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) which is found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
The name Sunda comes from Sundaland which is a term used to describe a biogeographical region of Southeastern Asia that was once an ancient land mass connecting Sumatra and Borneo as one. The Sunda clouded leopard is now restricted to these islands and is actually classified as two different subspecies the Bornean and the Sumatran clouded leopard.
Clouded leopards are well-known for being at home in the forest canopy, is there any research to show much time they actually spend there?
Clouded leopards are frequently recorded on the ground, but there is no other big cat that is as well equipped for dealing with life in the trees or as agile as the clouded leopard for moving in the trees. We know they rest and sleep there and we have reports of them hunting primates in the trees or taking species they have killed into the trees. We know all their adaptations are for a superior life there, but the real question is how much time at night do they spend in the trees because that’s when they’re active. If they are spending a lot time during the day time sleeping in the trees that doesn’t tell us much because we know other cats do that.
We are working with collaborators to try to put collars on clouded leopards soon so we can look at the impacts that things like palm oil have on them, their activity and territory use. This research will also help to answer basic questions like how much time they actually spend and hunt in the trees. These are some of the questions we hope to answer in the years to come.
Why is your work with the clouded leopard so important?
I think it’s because they have been left by the wayside and also from an evolutionary perspective and context they are of one of the most distinctive of the cats. What I mean by this is when you trace back the ancestry of some the modern big cats we see a clear relationship among all the other modern big cats in the Subfamily Pantherinae, of which clouded leopards are part of.
All of the other big cats – tigers, leopards, lions, jaguars and snow leopards come together under one genus Panthera, whereas the clouded leopard is in the genus Neofelis which likely means the ancestors of the clouded leopard probably broke away a little earlier from the Pantherinae lineage.
In many respects you have clouded leopard being the most distinctive of the cats and certainly the most distinctive of the big cats. There is an additional value that I assign to that because they are part of a larger evolutionary legacy that’s been lost and now there are only two species remaining. I think they are really interesting and that alone deserves the increased focus and conservation attention that we are trying to give them.
Part of that uniqueness is their possible relation to the saber-tooth cat
When people hear saber-tooth cat they think it’s one family of cats, but in reality the saber-tooth cat evolved five different times over the last 20 million years and they are not necessarily related to one another. One of the interesting things is there were selection pressures for this saber-tooth adaptation, like Darwinian selection natural, so something about this particular adaptation was selected for again and again and again. Some saber-tooth cats went extinct while others re-evolved, some ancestors went extinct where some descendants survived. So this happened several different times and right around the time clouded leopard broke away from the remaining extant living big cats.
We have a skull of another cat, which is also very similar in terms of its skull morphology and teeth, that suggests that it was on its way to becoming a saber-tooth and it was fairly arboreal like clouded leopards are today. So one wonders if there is a connection there, but I think we are a long way away from knowing what the ultimate connection is between these extinct species and the clouded leopard.
S.P.E.C.I.E.S. recently formed a partnership with the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and I am really excited about finding ways to look at these lessons from the past to see how we can apply them to modern conservation biology whether it’s extinction, climate change or the die off of mega fauna.
Why does the general public need to know more about the clouded leopard?
It is because of what we do know and, what we don’t know about the conservation threats. We do know that the largest threats to clouded leopards and in particular to the Sunda clouded leopard is oil palm and oil palm displacement of natural habitat. Clouded leopards are most associated with tropical rainforest more than any other cat and, these are the habitats that are being lost at the expense of expanding oil palm plantations in places like Indonesian, Malaysia, and Thailand which is also investing in oil palm. This is an insidious ingredient that makes its way into some of our favorite foods, if you like chocolate, or cookies or even the healthy substitute for butter there is likely palm oil in there.
“The worst part about it is that palm oil is not necessarily bad for you, its bad for the planet.”
The problem is that we are turning large parts of the tropics into these mono cultures of African oil palm and its making its way into our food ingredients, into our cosmetics, soap and shampoo. What more people need to do is read the label and if you see something that says palm kernel oil or something similar I advocated maybe not buying it.
What are you thoughts on sustainable palm oil and wildlife?
So the idea behind sustainable palm oil is really no more net loss of rain forest – I think that should be the first step regardless. If the idea is to grow in areas where there were other plantations or other sources of agriculture or degraded areas and invest in palm oil there for a while, that could possibly buy us some time. However the problem is then differentiating between ethical and non-ethical and we would need to have a really transparent certification process that could be validated. My other issue is that we have lost so much rainforest already no-one is talking about restoration and connectivity.
If you look at Sumatra on a map it’s completely devastated in terms of the forest, if we are going to talk about sustainable oil palm we must absolutely talk about restoring forests. My problem is the idea of sustainable oil palm just leads to this never-ending circle where we never talk about forest restoration or forest connectivity because already today we are already dealing with a fraction of the habitat for species like the clouded leopard than we were dealing with 30 years ago. I see a hornets nest of ways it can get out of control.
What happens when all of that available land goes because we are not talking about all the larger issues like continued growth. An expanding population also means increasing consumption which is going to take place as many of these countries continue to improve their economy and improve standard of living for their people and, this is perfectly legitimate. I think there is are ways to move forward that doesn’t lead to the obliteration of rainforest, but we need to start taking about limits, caps and strategies for re-connecting wild places and restoring rainforests. That’s something that we are not doing much of on a governmental or international level, we are not talking about global incentives at that global scale and we need to start doing more of that I think.
Is palm oil the biggest threat?
When you look at all clouded leopards together we could easy argue that palm oil is the most expansive threat. When you look at the Indochinese clouded leopard you have palm oil playing a role in term of habit loss in places like Thailand, but it’s not as much as dominant threat. Keep in mind that in places like this deforestation has already occurred, there is nothing left in a lot of these places. So in some countries continued deforestation is not necessarily the greatest threat to the Indochinese clouded leopard, I would argue that poaching might be.
We know poaching is happening for clouded leopards and they are being targeted across their entire range, but we just don’t know the levels as poaching seems to fly under the radar. One of the reasons could be that the skins of the clouded leopard might not fetch the high prices that say a tiger skin or snow leopard skins could fetch on the international market.
Many people have remarked to me how openly displayed clouded leopard skins sometimes are in local markets, the same markets that wouldn’t dare to openly display a tiger skin or snow leopard skin. So it makes me wonder what the level of poaching on clouded leopards is like as we know there is an international trade in them. On top of that there is also a lot of local trade which largely goes unreported because people would pay a fraction for a clouded leopard skin versus a tiger skin. It may be that the local middle class can afford to have a skin like clouded leopard hanging it in their house, but we just don’t know and that is something that worries me.
Is it a matter of time before someone trains their sights on clouded leopards, like they have with Jaguars? Does it mean that people will try to get more clouded leopards, because they are smaller, to compensate for their size? Who knows how these market changes could affect pressure on clouded leopards.
One of the things we are hoping to do is to work more closely with organizations like the EIA and to get more involved in representing the plight of clouded leopards by placing a greater focus on them with organizations like CITES. We also hope to lead the way in helping implement other potential restrictions on the trade in endangered species and local laws as well.
Are there specific strategies that S.P.E.C.I.E.S. would like to employ to help combat some of these threats?
This kind of effort requires participation of these larger groups like CITES and some of the other NGO’s, but one of the things that we want to do is to see if we can really identify more specifically what those pressures might be on local clouded leopard populations. For example, are clouded leopards sought after as final goal or objective of poaching, or are they poached more incidentally because they are caught in indiscriminate snares? How does that context change from one geographic location to the next?
One place where we might want to do more of that kind of research is in North-Eastern India where we know poaching is happening, but it might require building a network of people who can report these activities. Once we perfect that model there we could then expand it into other areas. While there is already a focus on tigers, snow leopards and common leopards there is still a shocking nonchalance regarding clouded leopards, so I am hoping that we can start changing that.
Involving people on a local level is vital for these type of initiatives, how do you see public outreach in local communities fitting in with your strategy?
In that context the goal would try to recruit their participation and buy in of community leadership to see if we can take that top down approach. The challenge right now is that everything is so anecdotal, there is so much that we don’t know, we need to do more background information to be able to say that in this one area it seems like clouded leopard skins are coming in every week because that would be a red flag and, it would be enough for us to say that this in an area we should try to invest in. Then, if we could solve this problem locally we could apply the elements that contribute to our success on the ground elsewhere.
So that is something we hope to do by working with the partner organizations that are keeping track of these skins and products to get a larger landscape perspective of where the hot spots of poaching and associated communities are. We are still in our infancy in knowing so much about the clouded leopard, like in Nepal where we just started working we are still determining where they occur. It is interesting and exciting but challenging and we may be in position, for example, to re-write the range map for clouded leopard if they occur in an area we think they are now and we are able to validate it. It would change the map for clouded leopard distribution.
We hope to begin these activities this year, but there are very fundamental natural history and ecological questions we must answer before we have a better idea of how to develop effective conservation strategies for them.
Some sources quote there are an estimated 10,000 clouded leopards left
I am so reluctant to use numbers, but the source is considered valid. I try to work with the conservation community to avoid putting a number because there is so much variation at this point. To be honest there could be forests out there that we think should have clouded leopards in them and don’t.
We know they occur at low densities similar to other big cats despite the fact that are much smaller than tigers or the common leopard. Something about that suggests that clouded leopards are still patrolling these fairly large areas whether in the trees or on the ground often in the shadow of tigers and leopards. Only on Borneo are clouded leopards the top predator, the only thing they have to worry about there is maybe an angry sun bear. They have very legitimate concerns living in areas with common leopards which could take them by surprise, but we need to understand how these larger predators impact clouded leopards to. There are a lot more questions than answers at this point but it is also imperative that many be answered quickly in the near term so that we can devise the proper conservation strategies.
It might not be as simple as just protecting a particular forest especially if the ecological interactions occurring within that forest fragment are not suitable or ideal for clouded leopard. They might be better for leopards or tigers, whereas in certain areas where we know tigers or leopards are gone clouded leopards might do better there because of that. We really need to understand all of this across a larger landscape because as we protect clouded leopard we also protect tigers, leopards and complete ecosystems.
What are your thoughts on the role of clouded leopards in captivity and, do you think zoos contribute to their conservation?
Zoos have the ability to call attention to the uniqueness of species and to allow people the chance to watch them for long periods, to see how they move, that’s something I have done that and I think that was invaluable to me. I certainly recall the first time I saw a clouded leopard in captivity and how that inspired me and, there are still a lot people out there who still don’t know what a clouded leopard is, or they think they are a type of leopard.
It is amazing how much research on captive species has a direct baring on what we learn about how to protect that species in the wild. The cheetah is prime example of what was learned as a result of direct one to one correspondence with those who were doing research in the captive world and those who were observing them in the wild when for decades there was frustrations on how to breed them in captivity. There was a similar situation with breeding clouded leopards in captivity when they had problems, which were resolved, with females being killed by over aggressive males. I am not arguing for conservation entirely in captivity, I do however think there is a role for captivity and managed collections in conservation.
“Were not managing them now for re-introduction we are managing them now mostly for genetic diversity – the jury is still out how we would reintroduce clouded leopards in certain areas.”
We still have to ask where will they come from. Will we remove them from existing populations and do we have the right to do that? Or are we going to use captive animals that are genetically similar in those cases? No one has completely answered these questions but we are hoping to. A good example is Taiwan they are waiting and that’s something we are working on, they would like to see clouded leopards back there, but we have a long way to go.
We are already dealing with a species so many people don’t know about and some people will only get exposure through zoos – how do you replace that? How do you get people to care about clouded leopards if they are never going to see one? I would argue that for the majority of people you are not. How do we replace that revenue that zoos provide? If we remove that now we would undoubtedly see the extinction of numerous species that are largely around today because of the investment of zoos. Zoos are starting to do their part in making habitats more amenable and safer to animals and also serve as that valuable bridge to be able to say to someone look at this animal – What is that? Until we find other ways to do that I think zoos will continue play valuable roles at least in terms of international conservation.
I would be a hypocrite if I said they did not somehow fuel my path. Zoos have supported a number our projects, I want to be clear so people know that I am not afraid to say that. Zoos have been giving and supportive of our efforts, including young zoo keepers who contact me because they are interested in doing more to help protect these animals in the wild. They want to be engaged, and I know in part a lot of that passion is coming from that interaction.
Of course there are bad examples of zoos, I have seen some of these zoos in war zones in the Middle East – they are completely inhumane conditions and absolute tragedies. Those need to be shut down, but compared to some zoos in North America that invest heavily in their animals, I think those are different battles.
I think we are all trying to identify the wild animals that we see as a reflection of our beloved cat or dog – we still need to make connections with individual animals and I still think we have a long way to go before we can embrace this larger ecological connection to things. As an ecologist it’s there – I see the clouded leopard, the forest behind them and to me those things are inextricable. We want them there, but I am the overwhelming minority in that respect.
What are some ways people can help clouded leopard conservation?
People can donate directly to Project Neofelis or to Cameras4Conservation which launched last year. The program is an effort to get remote sensing cameras in the hands of conservation professionals, young biologists and young educators in clouded leopard range countries. It helps to support initiatives and projects that are in line with our mission by also helping support education and maybe even policy development, if people are using cameras to determine if clouded leopards are present in a particular forest for the first time.
Participants submit competitive applications and we would make sure camera’s are spread out across different parts of the clouded leopard range. Last year we gave out camera’s to Sumatra, Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal – a nice diversity of countries where the camera’s will make a difference. We intend to work with these partners to standardize the data so that it is managed properly, because in the long-term we would like to make the information freely available to scientists as well policy makers in some of these areas.