Two scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) have found that the clouded leopard in western Assam’s Manas National Park and Tiger Reserve seems to play a mysterious game of hide-and-seek in the tropical canopy forests.
The mainland clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is often likened to the Ice Age sabretooth because it has the largest canines in proportion to its skull size among all cat species. It also has rotating rear ankles that enable it to climb down head first from trees, unlike the other felines.
The duo — carnivore ecologist Salvador Lyngdoh and research scholar Urjit Bhatt, both from the Department of Landscape-level Planning and Management at WII — also observed that the cat with cloud-like spots on its hide does not follow any specific pattern of operating in a certain space, unlike other carnivores.
They seemed to go wherever they pleased without worrying about other predators, primarily because of their ability to climb trees, even hang upside down from large branches, the study published in Oryx—the International Journal of Conservation said.
“The clouded leopards are basically the ninjas of the forest, striking with agility and strength,” Mr. Lyngdoh told The Hindu.
The clouded leopard is categorised into two species: the mainland clouded leopard distributed from central Nepal to peninsular Malaysia, and the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) native to Borneo and Sumatra.
The mainland clouded leopard is tagged vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and is considered at high risk of extinction in the wild due to deforestation and poaching.
“Despite this, knowledge of the animal’s ecology and population status remains limited. We investigated its population density, habitat utilisation, and spatial and temporal ecology in the 500 sq. km Manas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” the study said.
The scientists placed camera traps in 473 locations in an area covering 270 sq. km. The clouded leopard lived up to its reputation of being elusive; the duo recorded the cat 21 times at 17 locations despite a sampling effort of 11,388 trap nights between December 2016 and November 2019.
The population density of the animal was estimated at 1.73 individuals per 100 sq. km through the study conducted in collaboration with the Dehradun-based WII and the Science and Engineering Research Board in New Delhi.
“The availability of small prey species and primary forests influenced clouded leopard habitat use significantly, highlighting the potential conservation importance of species such as hares, birds, porcupines, and primates,” the study said.
The smallest of the big cats, the arboreal clouded leopard’s long tail helps it balance on trees and jump 4 to 6 metres, from one tree to another. The clouded leopard thrives in forested habitat, but a decline of such forests has led to a decline in its count.