An amateur photographer recently sighted a clouded leopard in Sunsari district in Nepal’s Tarai. You may ask, what is so special about that? Well, that was the first ever non camera-trap photograph of a wild clouded leopard in the country.
In Nepal, the word bagh (tiger) is used interchangeably to also describe leopards, but there is no specific name for the clouded leopard. Many Nepalis, including the village custodians of this endangered species of cat, do not even know it exists. Or that its existence is threatened.
The clouded leopard is so called because of a unique cloud-like pattern in the fur that is very different from the tiger’s stripes, or the leopard’s spots. It is found in dense tropical, sub-tropical and temperate forests of south and south-east Asia. Unlike the tiger, for which there is a precise count, there are no more than 100 clouded leopards in Nepal’s forests.
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Nepal’s tiger census last year was based on statistical calculations based on pictures of tiger individuals identified by their stripe patterns in motion-sensor camera trap photos. This is difficult to do for clouded leopards, which are even more elusive than tigers.
Even the cat’s diet is not well known, but may include monkeys, deer, squirrels, pheasants and partridges among its prey. Being one of the important predators in Nepal’s mid-hills, its role in controlling the population of monkeys and deer is vital.
The clouded leopard was first documented in Nepal in the 1840s by British acting resident and naturalist, Brian Houghton Hodgson. An absence of information for the following 150 years prompted many scientists to believe the species had become extinct in Nepal. Then, in 1988, a clouded leopard was caught by locals near Butwal, radio-collared and released back into the forest. After a week or so, the collar stopped sending signals. That leopard was lost, but the catch was at least proof the animal was not extinct in Nepal. There have been several sightings since then.
Expeditions have tried to find the rare cat, including one to the Makalu-Barun National Park 10 years ago. I could not get any camera-trap photos on that trip but found two pelts in a village which pointed to their presence in the area. There have been no follow ups to this study so far.
In 2007, locals caught an adult clouded leopard while it was trying to kill a chicken in Dhamaura village of Chitwan. Three years later, regular monitoring in Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, resulted in the first camera trap picture of the species. Later, there were sightings in the Annapurna Conservation Area, Chitwan National Park and Langtang National Park.
At least four leopards were counted in the lower Annapurna Conservation Area during our survey in 2017 (photo, above). Since most sightings were in conservation areas in the mountains, so far, the photograph in Sunsari in the Tarai is intriguing.
While the sightings and photographs are important, what we do not see are the clouded leopards that have fallen to poachers and hunters, or those which have faded away due to habitat loss. In some areas the number of photos of wildlife poachers caught on camera traps outnumber the prey species of the clouded leopard, which should be a matter of serious concern.
The clouded leopard has been given special protection in Nepal’s National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973. A person found to hunt or trade this species will be punished with a fine up to Rs1 million. But this is not stopping poachers, four clouded leopard pelts were found by Nepal Police in the past two months.
The only way to protect this magnificent and rare cat is to prevent the loss of its forest habitat, and to spread conservation awareness in schools. It is imperative for local people know that this enigmatic species co-exists with us, sand that it is much more valuable alive than dead.
Yadav Ghimirey is a conservation biologist at Friends of Nature specialising in Nepal’s wild cat species.
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