Rare clouded leopard sighted in Bengal: What we know about one of the world’s most elusive cats

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Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal posted a picture of a clouded leopard, one of the most ancient and mysterious of the cat species, on 4 August. More than 200 years after it was first discovered, not much is known about the predator with the longest canine teeth among living felines

The world of wildlife is full of mystery and India is no stranger to it. In West Bengal’s Buxa Tiger Reserve, the rare and elusive clouded leopard – one of the most ancient cat species was – sighted. A photograph was posted by the forest department on its Facebook page on the occasion of the International Clouded Leopard Day observed on 4 August.

The clouded leopard was officially recorded in 1821 but little is known about it more than two centuries later. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which works in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, has listed this uncommon cat as vulnerable.

Its population had a sharp decline in the second half of the 20th century because of poaching and deforestation. Less than 10,000 clouded leopards are believed to be living in the wild, reports NDTV.

What’s the clouded leopard?

The clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is named after the distinctive “clouds” on its coat – ellipses partially edged in black, with the insides a darker colour than the background colour of the pelt. The base of the fur is a pale yellow to rich brown, making the darker cloud-like markings look even more distinctive, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), a non-profit in the field of wilderness preservation.

The limbs and underbelly are marked with large black ovals, and the back of its neck is conspicuously marked with two thick black bars. It’s a medium-sized cat – about two to three feet long – with an exceptionally long tail and the longest canine teeth of any living feline. It is smaller than the regular leopard which is 4.25 to 6.25 feet long.

The clouded leopard is mostly related to the snow leopards and is in the same taxonomic subfamily, Pantherinae, as tigers, lions, jaguars, and true leopards. However, it does not roar and unlike smaller cats, it doesn’t purr.

What about their behaviour?

The clouded leopard is among the best climbers in the cat family. Yet it does most of its hunting on the ground, feasting on deer, pigs, monkeys and squirrels.

But since they are so elusive, scientists are not sure how they act in the wild. Like most cats, they are probably solitary animals.

Where is the clouded leopard found?

“Cloudeds” are rarely seen in the wild and their habitat remains mysterious. They roam the hunting grounds of Asia from the rain forests of Indonesia to the foothills of the Nepali Himalayas, says The National Geographic.

They are found in Bhutan, Nepal, northeast India, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, and Borneo. They are believed to be extinct in Taiwan and China.

This picture taken in September 2013 shows a clouded leopard, reportedly from Southeast Asia, at the Taipei city zoo. They are now believed to be extinct in Taiwan. AFP

Although population numbers are thought to be lower outside protected areas, their populations are probably healthiest in Borneo because of the absence of tigers and leopards, according to Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservative Biology Institute.

In 2011, a camera trap caught the Sundaland clouded leopard for the first time in Indonesia’s Berbak National Park on the island of Sumatra.

In India, these cats inhabit the forests of the northeast and now one has been seen in West Bengal. However, the clouded leopard is not as easily spotted as the other leopards.

Is the ‘clouded’ in Buxa the first on record in India?

No. Interestingly, last year, a team of researchers recorded photographic evidence of clouded leopards in a community-owned forest in Nagaland along the Indo-Myanmar border.

Rare clouded leopard sighted in Bengal What we know about one of the worlds most elusive cats

In a first, a clouded leopard was photographed near the summit of Mt Saramati in Nagaland’s Thanamir village last year. Image courtesy: WPSI/Thanamir Village

Clouded leopards are known to inhabit low-elevation evergreen rainforests. Found at a height of 3,700 metres – one of the highest reported altitudes where the animal has been sighted in the world so far – made the discovery even more significant.

The findings were published in the Winter 2021 issue of the Cat News, the IUCN/Species Survival Commission (SSC) Cat Specialist Group’s biannual newsletter.

The researchers, led by the Delhi-based non-profit Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), recorded camera trap images of the clouded leopards in the community forest of Thanamir village in eastern Nagaland’s Kiphire district, reports The Indian Express. They found evidence of two adults and two cubs.

There are previous reports of high-elevation records of clouded leopards in state-protected areas, including Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal.

What do we know about the Buxa sighting?

The clouded leopard was captured in a camera trap.

“Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is a big cat species found in India. Its range is very limited and only in a few pockets of dense forest it has been documented in the country. Buxa is one such place where you can find clouded leopards also. There have been many pictures captured by camera traps in recent times. Sharing one such clear camera trap picture captured recently from Buxa Tiger Reserve,” the West Bengal forest department said in the caption of the photo uploaded on Thursday.

With inputs from agencies

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