Cats of The Canopy

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 rainforest floor. Rarely seen in the wild the clouded leopard is both acrobat and mystery.

clouded leopards, neofelis nebulosa, Sunda Clounded leopard, Project Neofelis, endangered species,, Anthony Giordano, wild cats, small cats, Borneo, Sumatra, Indochinese leopard

Image of clouded leopards at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand – Pintrest

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 Anthony 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.

S.P.E.C.I.E.S, clouded leopards, neofelis nebulosa, Sunda Clouded leopard, Project Neofelis, endangered species,, Anthony Giordano, wild cats, small cats, Borneo, Sumatra, Indochinese leopard

The Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study

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 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

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.

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“I thought they were the feline equivalent of a question mark… I was always drawn to them because everything about them was mysterious.” – Anthony Giordano

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.

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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.

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Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) – This more widely distributed clouded leopard species can be recognized by its lighter, tawny fur and larger cloud-like markings. The most remarkable feature of clouded leopards is that, in proportion to their body size, they possess the largest canines of all the cats – Arkive

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Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) – Can be recognized by its darker, grey or greyish-yellow fur and smaller cloud-like markings. On average they have even larger and more knife-like canines than Neofelis nebulosa – Arkive

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.

clouded leopards, neofelis nebulosa, Sunda Clouded leopard, Project Neofelis, endangered species,, Anthony Giordano, wild cats, small cats, Borneo, Sumatra, Indochinese leopard

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.

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Two cladograms proposed for the genus Panthera – By Sainsf (Own work), Wikimedia Commons

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.

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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.

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It is possible that clouded leopard skins aren’t showing as much up in these international busts because maybe they are bought more locally and maybe because they can be afforded more by local people.” – Anthony Giordano

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.

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A clouded leopard cub feeding. Hand-raising is generally not used with zoo animals as it eliminates any possibility for release to the wild. But hand-raising of clouded leopards seems to reduce the animals’ stress levels, making them more at ease with captivity, and less likely to kill mates when bred.” – Photo by Bill Wood courtesy of the Clouded Leopard Consortium in Thailand Via – Mongabay

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.

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I do think that its important that as we navigate the ethical challenges moving forward of how to interact with other species we not do so in a way that compromises science, which is one of our biggest and effective tools for preventing extinction. That’s a challenge we also need to address I think more in the media as well. ” – Anthony Giordano

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.

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Maybe 500 years from now we will be living in a different society and hopefully clouded leopards will still be there along with all these other species, but I think to get to that point and ensure that right now zoos are playing a key role.” – Anthony Giordano

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.

For more on S.P.E.C.I.E.S, or to make a donation to their work please visit and be sure to follow them on Facebook.


Cat Chat

This post is a first for me, and a little different from others that I have done, as the roles have been reversed. Instead of being the interviewer, I have become the interviewee! I was asked by Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue, who I met at the Jackson Hole Conservation Summit, to participate in their Cat Chat series. Carole and I chat about my blog, wild cats, some of the issues facing the species, how to cope when faced with negative or overwhelming news and much more. Please feel free to leave comments below!

Big Cat Rescue, located in Tampa Florida, is one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world dedicated to abused and abandoned big cats. Their mission is to provide the best home they can for the cats they care for, to end abuse of big cats in captivity and prevent extinction of big cats in the wild. They are the home to about 80 plus cats including lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and more.

One of their main goals is to work towards ending the abuse of wild cats by ending the private possession and trade in exotic cats through legislation and education.

If you are a U.S. resident one of the most important things you can do currently is support the The Big Cat Public Safety Act HR1818 which is a is a federal bill that would end the private possession of big cats as pets, end cub petting, and limit exhibitors to those who do not repeatedly violate the law. It bans private ownership and breeding of big cats with limited exemptions. You can make sure this law gets passed by contacting your members of Congress and asking them to champion the bill.

Cat Summit Recap

A few weeks ago I attended the Jackson Hole Conservation Summit and Wildlife Film Festival where the focus was on wild cats. It ran from September 24 – 29 and was an intense and exciting week where biologists, conservationists, researchers, filmmakers and more converged to talk about wild cat conservation. With cat populations around the world in trouble and many facing imminent extinction, it was a timely and much overdue conference on how all stakeholders can work more efficiently to help save some of the worlds most iconic species.

Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

The conference was held at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, the main lobby window provided this spectacular and inspiring view

Having captured our imagination wild cats are forever embedded in our psyche and culture. They are both revered and feared, appreciated or exploited for their economic value and persecuted for doing nothing more than existing. Wild cats have the ability to unite or polarize people like no other animal on the planet – it is simply impossible not to have some sort of opinion on them.

Dereck Joubert, Thomas Lovejoy, George Schaller, Dr. Jonathan Baillie,Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Where do We Stand? The first panel discussion and overview on issues surrounding cat conservation

The week-long event touched on many facets of cat conservation with one very important underlying message – time is running out for wild cats everywhere and we must work harder and better to save these magnificent and important predators.

Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Landscapes, Corridors, P-22, Mountain lions, Save LA Cougars,Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park, Left to Right Rodney Jackson, Dr. Kim Young-Overton, Peter Lindsey, Beth Pratt- Bergstrom, Leandro Silveira, PhD

Landscapes and corridors panel discussion that examined a few important initiatives that are helping to keep wildlife connected to the wild

There was a tremendous amount of information to take in and with such great speakers there could have been an entire week just dedicated to the cat summit. Topics ranged from the general overview of threats facing wild cats, conservation efforts around the world, the illegal wildlife trade, trophy hunting, canned hunting, wildlife corridors, human-wildlife conflict and engaging local communities. Discussions also highlighted some of the important work being done to protect the smaller wild cats, how science and data can work together to help conservation and how storytelling can be used to inspire people to become more involved in conservation.

Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Carole Baskin, Ian Michler, Will Travers,Brent Stapelkamp, Cecil the lion, Born Free, Blood Lions, Big Cat Rescue,Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Cecil and beyond a discussion of high-profile animal stories in the media

For wildlife and conservation filmmakers this was an extremely important event and the biggest competition to date for the festival, almost 600 films were entered, with awards given out to films in various categories. During the week selected screenings took place throughout the day followed by filmmaker Q&A and, one of my highlights at the end of the festival included the premier screening, which played to standing room only, of Bob Poole’s new film Man Among Cheetah’s for Nat Geo Wild.

It was an exciting week where I learned a lot and met some fascinating people all who have important insights on wild cats and their conservation. In upcoming posts I will be  sharing more on some of the people behind the scenes as well as the projects and research they are currently working on.

No One Left Behind

Animal Defenders International (ADI) recently hosted the Canadian premier of Lion Ark, a documentary that takes a raw and intense look at ADI’s work in Bolivia to track down and rescue all animals being kept in illegal circuses. Despite the serious nature of the film Lion Ark is truly a feel-good story filled with hope and, it gives us a look at what can happen when humans decide animals should no longer be exploited as an ‘act’ under the Big Top.

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Q&A session with ADI’s Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips following the screening. Image – Teddy Ing

Prior to the screening I sat down with ADI’s Rescue Team Leaders and founders Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips to talk about the film, circuses, their rescue work and why ADI will never leave an animal behind.

For those who don’t know, what is Lion Ark about?

JC Lion Ark tells the story of the rescue of 25 lions from Bolivia following ADI’s undercover investigation of the suffering of animals in circuses and a campaign to get animal circuses banned. It shows how we worked with local wildlife officials and police to seize the animals once legislation was passed in Bolivia. The law gave circuses a year to stop using animals and for those circuses that defied the law, there were 8 of them, ADI went in to seize the animals.

TP It’s a film people shouldn’t be afraid to watch it – come to see it, cheer on the lions, and also enjoy some moments that will make you laugh out loud. It shows what can be achieved when people pull together to help animals and sometimes in the least expected places.

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With regards to the ban Jan says that “Bolivia got there first because President Morales wanted it, he made it clear.” Family of eight lions, crammed into a circus cage. Image ©ADI

What was the emotional and physical impact like on those working on this rescue?

JC There was the stress of long journeys over mountains, jungles and various circumstances and, there was tension around rescuing the animals, worrying would the circus find out that we were coming and would they escape. Then when you finally see the animals themselves it’s just an enormous sense that we have to get them, we have to save them there can be no failure. That’s the biggest emotion we had. It’s a lot of pressure and we have to be determined that we do not leave these animals, there is that one chance that if we leave without them we have lost them forever.

Are there any lions in particular whose story stood out during the rescue?

TP Interesting that during the making of the Lion Ark we filmed all the lions everyday and we were able to see how they changed. With these large groups of lions you got to see their different personalities and you noticed how they were like people’s dogs and cats, there were playful ones and timid ones. There was a lioness called India and she had never been out of a tiny cage, it was the size of a single bed and she was frightened to leave it. Many of these animals were frightened to leave their cage so we thought she was going to be the ‘story’ but slowly this incredibly aggressive lion called Colo Colo emerged as the hero. He tried to attack us and was defiant to the end but we all warmed to him because he’d never been broken by the circus, so it’s especially poignant when he goes free at the end.

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A solitary lioness, India, looks on as the rescue team negotiate her rescue. Image ©ADI

It’s been a number of years since the rescue, can you say that your work in Bolivia is done?

JC In terms of animal circuses in they are done, Bolivia has a ban on all domestic and wild animals in circuses. When circuses try to enter the country with animals then they won’t be allowed to take them into perform. Where there have been circuses trying to travel with animals we are pleased that the government is determined to enforce the law to ensure there are no animals performing in a circus.

TP ADI tries to rigorously enforce these laws like we did in Bolivia, and because of public support others saw these bans could be successful, we then did the same thing in Peru and have begun operations in Colombia. By going after all the circuses we do not leave the country until we have rescued every single animal so it’s a really clear messages – ‘if you come with wild animals in your circuses to Peru or Bolivia they are going to seized by ADI. So it completely removes the incentive of trying to get around the law, in Peru we tracked and chased circuses for almost two years. Anyone who slipped through the net we found and then rescued every single animal.

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On February 16 2011, in a historic world first, Animal Defenders International flew the 25 rescued lions from eight circuses in Bolivia to their new home at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. Image – Daily Mail UK

Why do you think audiences have been so receptive to Lion Ark?

JC Lion Ark was done differently, we wanted to tell the story of the animals and make them the stars, the film is really a mixture of facts and genuine emotions. We also wanted people to get up close and personal to feel that they had a direct connection with the lions on the screen. You see the animals as we found them and you see the joy of the animals as they start to become individuals again. They are no longer terrified shells and they develop into lions – I think that’s what grips people. We are just an ordinary group of people who wanted to make a difference for animals and we chose not to go the route of looking for a celebrity to do a voice over, we decided to make the film raw and I think that is also part of its appeal.

A example of ADI’s commitment to ensure no animal is left behind is the rescue of Mufasa the mountain lion in Peru. What was that like?

JC We had seen him years earlier during the investigation and what was interesting on that particular day is that we had gone to get other animals but didn’t realize he was there. It was the truck that we recognized as Tim and I had seen him in the truck years before when he appeared in our investigation. We didn’t know whether we would find him, but when we drove up to pick up the other animals we realized it was him so Tim and I jumped out, stood in front of and behind the pick up to stop him from getting away.

TP You are going into remote and challenging places in terms of surveillance with these rescues. Mufasa was the last circus seizure but they almost got away, we were there from about 8:30 AM to sunset and that was when we got the animals out. It was a really aggressive confrontation, we had the riot police turn up, but we would not leave until we had those animals no matter what abuse or threats were held against us, our team will hold the line. Mufasa, who was a very old man by then, had the final part of his life back in the forest where he belonged. Sadly he passed away eight months after the rescue, however he did so back in the forest and not on metal in the back of the truck.

Why do you think it is important to highlight the rescues of big cats in circuses?

TP All animals suffer in circuses, whether wild or domestic – lions, tiger, camels, zebras and so on suffer appallingly from the deprivation. There seems to be more violence inflicted and more frustration of movement for some of these wild animals, but all animals suffer when they are living in temporary accommodations or when moving from place to place whether in the U.S., Europe or South America – all the animals live the same.

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Kimba, dumped by the circus in a zoo, where he lived alone for 11 years. The ADI team had to to knock down a wall and cut through the bars to rescue him. Image ©ADI

The violence and some of the suffering we uncover goes unseen, for example when a lion gets aggressive or is being trained they are usually coming at the person front first. They get hit with metal bars and get broken teeth (almost all the lions we rescued in Peru had their teeth smashed) and those teeth are never treated, so some of these animals sit there in their cage in pain for life or, if the teeth become infected it can kill them. Another lion had been beaten about the head and was brain-damaged he had no sense of distance – so there is a huge amount abuse of these animals.

It is important for people to get behind getting rid of all these animals from circuses and not favor certain species as there is no evidence that any animal suffers more or less than others, camels are treated poorly, lions and tigers live metal boxes on the back trucks and they are regularly beaten. Just recently one tiger got out in Georgia and was shot, that’s their fate if they get out or become to aggressive, or if they just behave in a minor way as nature intended then they will be probably be beaten or possibly killed.

What are your thoughts on the Ringling Brothers circus?

JC  They have had every opportunity to change their acts. ADI did a study where it showed that in an average two-hour show the animals occupy about 15 minutes  – it is very easy to change to human acts. So Ringling Brothers had the choice, they have known their audience is going down, they knew they could replace the animals with human acts and the audience would like that because they disapproved of the animals, but they chose not to. They would rather close than move with the times.

Can you talk about the incident that took the lives of two of the rescued lions?

JC ADI took 33 lions to Africa at the tail end of our Columbia and Peru rescue, nine from Columbia and 24 lions from Peru. We wanted all of these animals to go back to their natural habitats wherever possible and we were pleased to do that for all except the Tiger Hoover who had to a go a lovely sanctuary in Florida. The 33 lions went to Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa where we have been caring for them ever since. Tragically, we suffered a recent devastating loss when a few months ago poachers broke into the sanctuary and killed two of the lions José and Liso.

This is something we have been tracking and we told the South African government when they made their decision to continue the lion bone trade, that it would paint a target on the heads of all of captive animals including ones in sanctuaries. There’s been a huge increase this year in attacks in animals held privately in sanctuaries because they look like easy targets and although sanctuaries have been increasing their security it is a huge risk for all of us.

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José and Liso napping in their enclosure at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa

What precautions are you now taking at the sanctuary?

JC We swore that we that when they killed José and Liso that we would be relentless in our pursuit of the criminals and, we have continued to work with the strong police investigation currently going on. We have increased our security massively, it costs about $7,000 a month on physical security and that’s men with guns. If we sense the threat is increasing and getting closer to us we have improved electronic security at various levels and men will sleep close to the lions. We want people to know that there are two important targets, the first is, José and Liso are going to get justice by ensuring we catch and prosecute the people responsible and second, we have absolute top security for our lions to make sure everyone else is safe. That has been our focus for the last two months.

Since the poaching incident is ADI rethinking South Africa as a safe haven for lions?

TP There is simply not enough homes for these animals around the world. If we say these animals don’t got to Africa  – they aren’t going to be rescued and will end up dying in circus cages. The reality is this is where these animals live and we must get used to protecting them in their natural habitat otherwise it’s going to be used as an excuse to continue to plunder animals from the wild, put them in western zoos and say they are going to be safer.

There were no reports in the media between 2014 and 2015 of any lions being killed this way in private sanctuaries, then in 2016 there were 18 attacks, this year there have been 22. It’s a massive escalation and is already spilling into other countries. We must catch these people and we must boost the security, but we cannot throw our hands up and simply say we will send them all to the U.S.

People must think of how important these very big scale rescues are, they are not symbolic and just rescuing worst cast, we are trying to eliminate entire industries and make sure it doesn’t happen again. If we are going to do that we need as many homes open to these animals as possible and you cannot beat their natural habitats if available.

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“A number of animal protection groups have been using South Africa as a sanctuary location for animals, we cannot close that door we must find a way to make it safe.” Image ©ADI

JC We have to take on the poachers, the animal protection movement has to now stand up and say we are going to take them on and crush poaching. We must also work to crush the markets for wildlife products like lions bones, Chinese medicine and trophies. All markets must be closed in the both Western and Asian countries.

How can people get involved in helping circus animals?

JC  The best way is to go to ADI’s Facebook page and take the actions we suggest – send emails, write letters, educate, speak to legislatures, use social media, reach out to others in school or at work and get them on board. If everyone works together and supports ADI in one way then, we can save these animals. It’s about the numbers of people speaking up and deciding enough is enough, as well as taking steps to ensure governments protect these animals.

TP If people can support us financially it makes a huge difference. We are essentially running a global sanctuary and these large-scale rescues mean no one is left behind. It’s a huge challenge and ADI is a small organization where we empty entire countries, we did that in Peru with people donating $10, $20, $30 at a time. If people can host a small or large fundraiser, adopt one of our animals or donate it makes a massive difference. If they can do that we will go out to rescue these animals and enforce these laws.

ADI has launched, with the support of Moby, the José and Liso anti-poaching fund to make sure the poachers are caught and to create wider anti-poaching initiatives. If people can support this initiative, we can ensure all funds will go to directly to this fight.

 Lion Ark is now available on DVD

Changing Hearts and Minds

Los Angeles’ famous feline resident and star of the documentary The Cat That Changed America has managed to captivate people on both a local and international level like no mountain lion before. Driven by instinct and perhaps fate, P-22 navigated deadly traffic and took up residence in Griffith Park where he remains surrounded by highways, urban sprawl and people. Essentially his ‘trapped’ existence has become a stark reminder of why there is an urgent need to ensure proper habitat connectivity for wildlife.

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P-22 makes a rare daylight appearance in Griffith Park. Instagram © Miguel Ordenana @ordenana4 August 2017

P-22 has become both legend and hero to a community now passionately working to ensure that all mountain lions in California have a future where they can exist and thrive. His story is an inspirational and compelling example of co-existence and, his documentary is set to change the hearts and minds of all those who see it.

After six months on the film circuit, Director Tony Lee is back to answer a few questions on the positive impact his film is having and the importance of its next screening.

The Cat That Changed America premiered earlier this year and has had various public screenings in and around L.A., what has the audience reception been like so far?

The audience reception has been tremendous and people have really embraced this film. The film has been shown at the Old Summer Cinema in Pasadena, the Green Screens festival in UCLA, and is due to be shown at the DTLA Film Festival at the end of September and the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City in October. We have also had sponsored screenings in Ojai, Oak Park and the Natural History Museum of L.A. County. Everyone wants to find out more about P-22.

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The L.A. Premiere of The Cat That Changed America March 16th at the UCLA James Bridges Theater

The most recent screening of the film in Hollywood included a panel discussion, what are the benefits of having one coincide with a screening?

It really gives an interactive experience so people can watch the movie and then ask questions about P-22. They also have the chance to have their photograph taken with his cardboard cutout which is always popular. By attending the screening they have a chance to speak to the cast about the building of the wildlife crossing and also the widespread impact of rodenticides (rat poison) upon our wildlife.

In addition to raising awareness for the wildlife crossing, what else do you see the film accomplishing?

A big part of the film is the issue of rat poisons as P-22 himself was effected when he had eaten too many coyotes and raccoons, which had ingested rats that had eaten the poison. The poison works its way up the food chain and the audience is coming to realize that all things are connected, and that using these harmful chemicals has devastating consequences for animals.

Do you think your film has encouraged people to take the threat that rodenticides pose to wildlife more seriously?

Absolutely. I think people are shocked to discover the effects of poisoning on wildlife. There are audible gasps in the audience when they see P-22’s photograph as a result of rodent poisoning. People have been asking Poison Free Malibu, who feature in the film, what can be done to prevent the same thing from happening in their neighborhood, how can they get these really dangerous chemicals banned and, how can they put pressure on local authorities to ban the use of rodenticides. There have been positive changes as a direct result of the film.

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P-22 suffered from rodenticide poisoning but was treated and recovered

What has the international reception been like, and do you think people outside of North America will be able to find parallels to challenges they face with wildlife?

The international reception has been awesome. Both The Guardian and the Times of London have written about the film, despite the fact it has yet to premiere in the UK. The universal problem facing all wildlife is loss of habitat – connectivity is a big issue as motorways and freeways have cut swathes across our countryside. Big cats are in danger in particular from habitat fragmentation and, some like the cheetah are near extinction because of it.

The films next big screening is at the Downtown Los Angeles film festival, why is this particular screening so important?

It will reach the heart of the financial district and downtown L.A., where many Angelenos live and work. They may have heard of P-22, but are probably unaware of his amazing story and how he crossed two major freeways to reach Griffith Park. We welcome donors to help sponsor the wildlife crossing through the campaign group Save LA Cougars. The film will be shown at the Regal Live Cinema in Downtown L.A. on Friday September 29th and you can buy tickets through the DTLA Film Festival website.

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Click to see an animation map of P-22’s journey

Now that you have told P-22’s story do you think you will make any more films about mountain lions?

It depends on the story as P-22 is a hard act to follow, but mountain lions are incredible animals and I’m sure there are many stories out there to tell.

Finally, is there anything you can tell us about what will you be working on next?

I’m currently executive producer for the BBC on a new natural history series which will air next year.

Tickets for the DTLA Film Festival screening are now available for purchase. If you would like to support the wildlife crossing directly by making a donation please visit Save LA Cougars.

The Secrets of Lost Cats

Have you ever stopped to read a lost cat poster? I seem to gravitate towards them even sharing photos of posters on social media thinking that everything will work out or maybe it already has and kitty is safe at home. The hope is that they just forgot to take down the poster after their cat was found. One time I called the number on a poster after recognizing an orange tabby I had seen from his photo. The person on the other end thanked me for calling and said that he had not heard from anyone else. We chatted for a bit and he told me that the cat had belonged to his dad and accidentally got out. Unfortunately the cat had disappeared from my backyard as soon as he showed himself, but I left the owners with some tips on how to find their cat. Sadly, I don’t believe this kitty ever made it home.

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I will admit that’s where it ended, I tried not to dwell on the issue or why people let their cats out in the first place, as that way madness lies. Therapist Dr. Nancy Davidson, author of the book The Secrets of Lost Cats takes the lost cat poster to the next level as she delves into the stories and people behind them. After having had to create one for her cat Zak who goes missing, Zak is found after a very interesting rescue not far from Nancy, she goes on a seven-year journey of analyzing lost cat posters she comes across, reaching out to the creators offering a sympathetic ear and advice.

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There are some cat posters created with lots of thought and others that seem to be thrown together in haste. What type of person creates a particular type of poster and do some people seem to be more concerned for their cats than others? There were stories that had me turning the pages in anticipation, with fingers crossed, of what the outcome would be and others that left me feeling sad. A great deal of cats who are lost simply never make it home. Unfortunately it is still a world where cats are not viewed or valued in the same way as dogs, cats are still seen as disposable (they are the number one animal in shelters and on the streets) and not every cat that goes missing has a human who cares to put the effort in to looking for them.

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There are those that go to extraordinary lengths to find their cats, like hiring a pet detective or employing the services of a pet psychic, not giving up until all avenues have been exhausted.  Image – The Secrets of Lost Cats

One story, demonstrating both the ugly and good side of human nature, that really stood out was about a cat named Shelby who goes missing from an apartment in New York City. It is an interesting lesson in empathy, or lack of, as well as the kindness of strangers and the reality that sometimes those who we least expect to disappoint us, do.

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What lengths would you go to bring your lost cat home? Image – The Secrets of Lost Cats

The Secrets of Lost Cats is as much about the human experience as it is about the cats, the relationships we have with them and each other. It is about the emotional lives of people behind the posters and how far some will go to be reunited with a cat considered to be a family member. The book asks and will leave you thinking “What would you do for love?”. The other side is it may convince you that keeping your cats inside, or giving them access to a safe outdoor enclosure, is better than going through the worry that comes with creating your own lost cat poster.

The Secrets of Lost Cats can be purchased at online retailers like Amazon and is a thoughtful read to end the summer with.

The Last Lioness

An extraordinary lioness known as Lady Liuwa who lived in Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia, has passed away. She was discovered having died of natural causes on August 9, 2017 one day before World Lion Day, she was thought to be 17 years old. Lady Liuwa was well-known as the lioness who survived the odds as the last of her species in a place where every other single lion had been wiped out by hunting and poaching. She survived alone without a pride, seeking out human companionship in her profound loneliness. African Parks made several attempts to reintroduce other lions to the area beginning in 2007 and, after living for over 5 years without hearing or seeing another lion, Lady Liuwa finally had a chance of being with her own kind. Never able to have cubs of her own, she helped raise the many cubs from another reintroduced lioness named Sepo.

The story of her early years was told in the National Geographic documentary The Last Lioness.

Since the film was released other lions had been reintroduced back into the park but not without complications and loss. Despite the insurmountable odds Lady Liuwa survived, a true symbol of strength, courage, forgiveness and tolerance. Importantly she did not die alone and leaves an established pride that is a sign of hope for her species if humans are willing to work together to allow them to live as they should, wild and free from persecution. I believe that stories like this, and unique animals like Lady Liuwa, are not coincidences but rather a gift sent to impart a lesson for humans to learn and evolve from.

A touching tribute to this great lioness was posted by African National Parks, the full dedication Remembering Lady Liuwa can be read here.

“Lady Liuwa was a truly exceptional lioness, so much so that it is impossible to do justice to her in words” said Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks. “Oftentimes she would lie just five meters away from our camp-fire in the middle of the park. When it came time to go to bed, she would follow, walking parallel to the path and then fall asleep in front of one of our tents. In the mornings, we would find her in a tree, just watching but never threatening us. After years of being solitary, and after several reintroduction’s and careful management, we were finally able to unite her with her own kind. While her passing saddens us all, she leaves behind a legacy of survival in the small but growing pride in Liuwa Plain”.

Tribute by Rob Reid, prior Park Manager of Liuwa Plain – “As you meander slowly over the crisp earth towards them you can always recognize Lady from a distance, the way she cocks her head to the side, waiting for you, expecting you; that’ll be Lady. And it was true; she didn’t look at you like a lion – there was none of that bone chilling stare, head held high, alert “through you” sort of look. She would give you a sort of gentle titled head view, a relaxed and familiar pose. A look that had seen it all, and been through thousands of nights of loneliness. But that look – the sharing of space, with you – an outsider; there was that…She was an anomaly, an orphan, that had somehow survived the odds of the harshness of the African bush. And although her entire pride had been wiped out by illegal hunting, she found friendship in humanity, and later with an adopted pride. She was a bridge perhaps between what should have been in our Eden and what we see so much around us today.”