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Episode 240: Captivated by Clouded Leopards

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These magnificent cats are the oldest of the modern big cats and some of the most beautiful. Native to southern and south-eastern Asia, Clouded Leopards are facing extinction. much like big cousins the Tiger. Clouded Leopards are a special animal, with traits superior to almost any other cat species. They have the largest canine teeth to skull ratio of any cat. Their canine teeth, measuring up to 2 inches (5 cm), are the same size as the aforementioned adult Tiger!!  They are specially adapted to climb up and down trees, better than almost any other species of cat on the planet.

Clouded Leopard History

Clouded leopards are nimble, secretive jungle cats from the dense forests of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. Part of the magnificent Felidae family of big cats, in the early 2000’s scientists identified there are actually two species, differing in both their genetics and their morphologies:

  1. Neofelis nebulosa (clouded leopard): located in mainland Southeast Asia 
  2. Neofelis diardi (Sunda clouded leopard): found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. [1]

Boasting one of the most unique and beautiful coats in the animal kingdom that give them their name, these magnificent cats, like so many species of Asian wildlife, are facing an uncertain future. They are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list, but as researchers know so little about them, it is possible they are in an even more dire situation than we know. To highlight this, there is currently no estimate of how many mature individuals are surviving in the wild. 

Found at : www.wildcatfamily.com/felidae-evolution/


The clouded leopard is part of the much-loved Felidae family, which has 37 charismatic members from the largest cat, the tiger, to the housecats prowling around our homes. The base lineage is Panthera, containing the lion, jaguar, leopard, tiger, snow leopard and the clouded leopard [2]. Long believed to be one species, when researchers carried out detailed morphological studies and genetic analyses, it soon became clear that the cats on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra were distinct from those living on the mainland. Researchers have hypothesised that the 2 subspecies became separated in the Middle to Late Pleistocene, which coincided with the explosion of the Toba volcano in Sumatra. This catastrophic event could have driven the populations apart, and as the dust settled and the environment recovered, two populations settled into different refugia, which eventually became the mainland of Asia and the islands of Borneo and Sumatra as the tectonic plates shifted. More recently, further studies into mitochondrial and nuclear DNA have suggested that the Sumatran and Bornean populations could divide the species into further subspecies:

  1. Neofelis diardi diardi from Sumatra
  2. Neofelis diardi borneensis from Borneo [3]

Why do these genetic studies matter so much? Well, in conserving species it is important that we just don’t consider the species as a whole but think about sub populations and the unique genetic material they can contain. This is important for effective conservation management to ensure the full genetic legacy of the species survives: the more genetic variation, the more resilient the species will be to the inevitable disturbance that comes from living in the Anthropocene age. 

Below shows some morphological differences between the Clouded Leopard (left) and the Sunda Clouded Leopard (right): The Sunda subspecies has much darker fur and smaller cloud shaped markings









The clouded leopard is found throughout Asia from the foothills of the Himalayan mountains into Southeast Asia and China, although poaching and wide scale habitat loss has dramatically reduced the presence of the clouded leopard in China. Their favored habitat is evergreen tropical forest, where they are perfectly adapted to navigating through the trees and dense foliage, but there have been records of them in dry, deciduous forest and even in logged forests and rarely, mangrove forests!

Found at: wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/asia/clouded-leopard/

Generally, these secretive cats are known to prefer closed forest to open spaces. There isn’t a huge amount of information about the ranges of these cats: one radio-collar study from Thailand gives the best estimate of 30-40km2 with little difference between males and females. [4].  Researchers have used camera trapping studies to model the habitat usage of the cats. Availability of prey (such as porcupines, mouse deer and small carnivores), higher elevation (to avoid tigers and possibly humans) and the density of vegetation were all factors that led to a higher chance of catching the clouded leopards on camera traps. These kinds of studies can provide a lot of information about what the cats prefer and help identify appropriate habitat for them and conserve those important spaces. This is particularly important in the case of the clouded leopard, whose habitat is becoming increasingly more fragmented [5].

Physiology and Adaptation 

Below on the left is a skull of the Clouded Leopard. On the right are image from Christiansen, P (20006) where: A: Lion skull, B: Puma skull, C: Smilodon skull, D: Clouded leopard skull


Unlike many big cats, the clouded leopard has an ossified hyoid bone, meaning it can actually purr like a housecat! One of the most distinctive parts of its physiology, however, is its large canine teeth, which are the longest canine teeth in respect to skull size of any carnivore. This feature has led many to refer to the clouded leopard as the modern sabre-toothed tiger [6]. They have several other interesting skeletal characteristics including longer hind limbs in comparison to their front limbs to allow them to leap large distances as they hunt through the dense jungles. They also don’t have a fused ulnae and radii which allows them to attain a greater range of motion when climbing trees.

Threats and Conservation

As with so many species today, habitat loss is a major threat facing the clouded leopards. Southeast Asia is currently undergoing the fastest deforestation rate of anywhere in the world at approximately 1.2-1.3% of forest habitat being lost each year since 1990 [7]. This is a particular concern for the clouded leopards who almost exclusively prefer closed forest and are almost never seen in open spaces. They do currently occur in large, protected reserves, but the pressures on them are so intense and they can travel such large distances, that these small areas may not be enough to protect them. Many conservationists and researchers consider this to be the biggest threat facing the leopards [8]. 

As with so many wild cats with beautiful coats, the allure of their patterned fur and body parts has driven poaching and trade. In more recent years, surveys of wildlife markets have noted increased numbers of clouded leopard skins, bones and meat for exotic dishes. There is also a worrying trend for clouded leopard breeding facilities, either for the pet trade or for intensive breeding to harvest body parts. In 1975 clouded leopards were added to CITES Appendix 1, meaning their trade is only permitted in exceptional circumstances.

Across all the clouded leopard range countries including Myanmar, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam, there are many local hunting bans in place, but there is still concern among many researchers that despite an apparent lack of data on the clouded leopard trade, it is on the increase, with more and more cat parts being moved through Myanmar into Thailand and China. There is a fear that with huge decreases of tigers due to high demand for body parts in traditional Asian medicine and wildlife markets, poachers may use clouded leopards as alternatives for tiger parts. There is still more research needed in this area to understand the extent of the trade and where it is operating. Expert opinion generally holds that not enough is currently being done to tackle to illegal wildlife trade and protect the species, and there is a call for more cooperation between enforcement agencies, better compliance to CITES and the development of more legal standards to tackle the live leopard trade [9]. 


[1] Kitchener, A.C. Beaumont, M.A. and Richardson, D. (2006) ‘Geographical Variation in the Clouded Leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, reveals two species.’ Current Biology, 23(5), pp 237-2383. 

[2] Werdelin, L. Nouyuki, Y. Johnson, W.E. and O’Brien, S.J. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), Chapter 2, Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, 2010. 

[3] Wilting, A. Christiansen, P. Kitchener, A.C. Kemp, Y.J.M. Ambu, L. and Fickel, J. (2011) ‘Geographical variation in and evolutionary history of the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) with the description of a new subspecies from Borneo.’ Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 58(2), pp 317-328. 

[4] Austin, S.C. Tewes, M.E. Grassman, J.L.I. and Silby, N.J.(2007) ‘Ecology and Conservation of the leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis and clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand.’ Acta Zoologica Sinica, 53(1) pp 1-14. 

[5] Wei Tan, C.K. Rocha, D.G. Clements, G.R. Brenes-Mora, E. Hedges, L. Kawanishi, K. Mohamad, S.W. Rayan, D.M. Bolongon, G. Moore, J. Wadey, J. Campos-Arceiz, A. and Macdonald, D.W.  (2017) ‘Habitat use and predicted range for the mainland clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa in Peninsular Malaysia.’ Biological conservation, 206, pp 65-74.

[6] Christiansen, P. (2006) ‘Sabertooth characters in the Clouded Leopard (Neofelis neubulosa Griffiths 1821), Journal of Morphology, 267, pp 1186-1198. 

[7] State of the worlds forests, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome, Italy (2007). 

[8] https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/14519/97215090#threats

[9]D’Cruze, N. and Macdonald, D.W. ‘Clouded in mystery: the global trade in clouded leopards.’ Biodiversity and Conservation, 24, pp 3505-3526. 


Massive Thank You to Rachael Da Silva from the UK! Please follow her on Instagram and her wildlife artwork at tilly_mint08





August 18, 2021
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