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.
Read also: How many tigers in Nepal, Kunda Dixit
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.