Clouded leopards are arboreal cats, meaning they spend a lot of time in the trees. But when they take to the ground they can be snapped by camera traps, like this one in Sumatra. Photo: Wai-Ming Wong

By Sean Mowbray
17 August 2017

(Mongabay) – Tigers and orangutans are the well-known faces of the palm oil crisis. But the enigmatic clouded leopard is equally threatened and almost unknown in comparison. Conservationists are looking at ways to make palm oil plantations work for it, rather than against it.

“We know very little about what [clouded leopards] eat, their social structure, their ecology, how much time they spend in trees… we know very, very little,” Ewan Macdonald, of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (CRU), told Mongabay. He studied the species for his PhD but has yet to see it in the wild, apart from through his camera trap images.

It’s what can be called a “small, big cat” says Anthony Giordano, founder and director of S.P.E.C.I.E.S., and has been largely overlooked by both the public and conservationists in comparison to some of its more famous counterparts like tigers or snow leopards. “When you think of a secretive species it’s quite normal to think of snow leopards, but I think we know more about them than we know about clouded leopards.”

All this secrecy brings about a sense of déjà-vu when talking to those who study clouded leopards, as a “we just don’t know” response is common. This is not a reflection of the skills of these biologists; rather, it’s testament to the evasive prowess of this elusive and secretive jungle cat.

We know so little about clouded leopards that only in 2006 did scientists discover that there are in fact two distinct species. Neofelis nebulosa is found on the Southeast Asian mainland up to China and as far west as the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. Neofelis diarti, or the Sunda clouded leopard, is found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, at the heart of palm oil territory. Both species are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN across their ranges.

What we do know about the clouded leopard is that palm oil development is posing a serious threat to its survival in the wild. Clouded leopard habitat falls within three of the world’s top palm oil producing countries: Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The Sunda clouded leopard is particularly threatened by the industry as both Sumatra and Borneo have seen much of their lowland forests cleared for tree monocultures like oil palm plantations.

Over the past 40 years Borneo has lost over one third of its forest cover to logging, fires and plantations, continually shrinking the Sunda’s habitat. At current rates of deforestation, the island will lose an additional six million hectares of forest by 2020, according to WWF.

Today the island’s forests are dissected by around 8 million hectares of oil palm plantations, estimated at just under half of the world’s total palm oil production area. [more]

A clouded future: Asia’s enigmatic clouded leopard threatened by palm oil

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