- A camera-trap study on clouded leopards in Assam’s Manas National Park finds the species has adopted a coexistence strategy for survival.
- The study that looked into the population, habitat utilisation and ecology of clouded leopards found the population density of the cat to be 1.73 individuals per 100 sq km.
- Researchers say that the limited knowledge and data available on the species is coming in the way of building effective conservation strategies.
Clouded leopards have developed nuanced coexistence strategies to survive in the wild by having a peak activity time that does not overlap with other carnivores and by potentially playing “hide-and-seek” in spaces they share with stronger, larger competitors, finds a study from Manas Tiger Reserve and National Park in the northeastern state of Assam. The clouded leopard (Neofelis sp.) is the world’s “smallest big cat”, though it is often mistaken for a small cat species.
Many distinguishing features set clouded leopards apart from other cat species, such as their visually striking coat pattern with cloud-like large spots. Additionally, clouded leopards possess the largest canines in proportion to skull size among all cat species, further setting them apart from other wild cats. It has exceptional arboreal abilities, including climbing and navigating treetops, which are less common among other small cats.
The species is distributed across central Nepal and southern China to Peninsular Malaysia and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The DNA and morphological analyses have categorised the clouded leopard into two species — the mainland clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) native to Borneo and Sumatra.
The latest study by researchers of the Wildlife Institute of India investigated the population density, habitat utilisation and ecology of the clouded leopard by deploying camera traps across the forested habitats of Manas National Park. The study reiterated findings from previous studies that clouded leopards prefer habitats with lush, healthy vegetation, dense canopies and abundant small prey. It also highlighted the importance of the conservation of prey species like hares, gallinaceous birds, porcupines, and primates crucial for the survival of clouded leopards.
Resource partitioning as a means to coexist with dominant carnivores
Niche partitioning is an important aspect of species survival in the wild with subordinate predators adjusting their behaviour to avoid overlapping space and time with dominant carnivores. The forest of Manas National Park supports a diverse carnivore community of five large carnivores — tiger (Panthera tigris), common leopard (Panthera pardus), clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), dhole (Cuon alpinus) and Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus).
The study found that there was temporal overlap but no spatial overlap between clouded leopards and other carnivores, which, according to the researchers, is a nuanced coexistence strategy for survival. “Although clouded leopards and other carnivores shared overlapping activity times, each species had distinct peak activity times. This indicates that they may avoid direct conflicts or competition during their most active periods,” explained lead investigator of the study, Salvador Lyngdoh.
He said that the species exhibited a random (independent) spatial distribution, with no clear patterns of avoidance or co-occurrence with other predators. “This suggests they may employ a strategy of hiding or remaining elusive, similar to a game of hide-and-seek,” he added. The researchers believe that even though clouded leopards and larger predators share the time of activity but show no clear pattern of spatial segregation, the clouded leopards might utilise their arboreal abilities, such as escaping into treetops when encountering larger predators which might enhance their survival.
Clouded leopards face extinction in many regions
During the course of the field study, 12 individuals were photographed on 11,388 nights through camera traps, pegging the population density at an estimated 1.73 individuals per 100 sq km in Manas National Park. In a 2017 study from Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram that showed the highest recorded density for clouded leopards (5.14 individuals per 100 sq km), 84 photo-captures of clouded leopards were reported in 4,962 trap nights (nights when a camera was active).
A 2021 IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) assessment of clouded leopards estimated the global population to be between 3,700 and 5,580 mature individuals. The species is categorised as Vulnerable on the Red List. The assessment found that the mainland clouded leopard populations continue to decline in the majority of range countries which is evident from the reduced distribution in 2021 compared to 2016 when it was last assessed. A combination of threats such as direct exploitation and targeted hunting, incidental mortality due to snares set for other species and habitat loss is considered as causes for the decline in their numbers.
A review of findings from 155 camera-trap surveys between 2010 and 2020 concluded that while clouded leopards continue to be present widely in northeast India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bhutan and Thailand, the species has gone extinct in Vietnam and is facing near extinction in Bangladesh and China.
In India, clouded leopards, with a home range to about 30-40 sq km, are distributed in the northeastern states, northern West Bengal and Bihar (Valmiki Tiger Reserve). Lyngdoh said that clouded leopards have also been documented in habitats outside protected areas. “Apart from primary forests, studies have indicated their presence in various habitats, including secondary and selectively logged forests,” he said.
More study and data collection needed for better conservation strategies
Researchers told Mongabay India that limited knowledge and data are coming in the way of building effective conservation strategies. Independent researcher Priya Singh, who has studied clouded leopards and marbled cats at Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve, said that targeted studies on lesser-known wildcats are missing and most of the information available on them are from the bycatch data available from the camera-trap studies targeted at other species like tigers and leopards.
Apart from the lack of data, Lyngdoh said that factors such as ethnopolitical conflicts, particularly in the northeast region, resulting in the degradation of clouded leopard habitats, lack of awareness among local communities about the species and the absence of genetic monitoring to collect crucial data for effective individual monitoring are some of the challenges in conservation of the animal in the region.
As a solution, Lyngdoh proposed policy interventions such as collaborative efforts with national and international conservation scientists to gather comprehensive data on clouded leopard status, distribution and population trends; more and better research to enhance the understanding of the species and establish a standardised monitoring system with an online forum and a manual for survey and monitoring techniques. Apart from these measures, other interventions Lyngdoh suggested included better protection of the clouded leopard habitats and legal initiatives against poaching and illegal trade of the animals as well as educating the stakeholders, especially the local communities, about the animals, as their cooperation is essential in protecting the lesser-known cats. “We also need to develop and standardise genetic markers to precisely identify clouded leopard species in non-invasive samples. Utilising genetic data to create action plans for sub-population connectivity and long-term population health is needed,” he said.
Banner image: A camera-trap image of a clouded leopard in Manas National Park. Clouded leopards are a largely arboreal, shy animals considered the “smallest big cat” in the world. Photo by Salvador Lyngdoh/WII.