In Search Of The Clouded Leopard

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 43 No. 12, December 2023

By Urjit Bhatt and Salvador Lyngdoh

While setting up a camera trap, we heard mysterious noises and movements about 300 m. to our left. We had no clear line of vision in the dense, semi-evergreen lush forests of the Manas National Park, but the gentle swaying of the towering trees above hinted at something significant. Communicating in hushed tones, we walked silently towards our vehicle parked nearby. Before we could cover the last few steps, an elephant came charging towards us! It had probably picked up our scent. We sprinted the last few metres, jumped into the vehicle and sped away with the pachyderm pursuing us for 500 m. before giving up the chase. We were intruders in the elephant’s domain and it had every right to usher suspicious interlopers out.

For our camera trap study, I (Urjit) was accompanied by my assistant, interns, and a forest guard. We were on our way to retrieve memory cards from the deployed camera traps, hoping to have captured a glimpse of our study species, the elusive clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa. On our way back to camp, we decided to inspect another camera at the Garuchara riverbed of Bansbari range. As always, we examined the area for pugmarks and scats before approaching the camera. To our delight, we stumbled upon a fresh carnivore pugmark right in front of the camera, which we photographed, using a reference pen for scale. Identifying clouded leopard pugmarks and differentiating them from similar-sized sub-adults or cubs of tigers and leopards can be challenging. But to our joy, the camera images revealed a rare capture – a clouded leopard that had walked by just the night before.

In the blink of an eye: a rare camera-trap image captures the elusive clouded leopard, providing a fleeting glimpse into its secretive world. Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Institute of India.

Relief and jubilation were writ large on the faces of the team for having encountered clouded leopard spoor and in-camera images of the elusive felid we were in search of. The experience doubly reinforced our commitment to studying and conserving these enigmatic creatures in their natural habitat.

Conservation Beyond The Spotlight

Such field experiences were among a few of the remarkable moments of my journey in the forests of the Manas National Park. It all began in 2016, with an extraordinary opportunity – to be a part of the first-ever project in India exclusively dedicated to clouded leopards. A collaborative project between the Science and Engineering Research Board and the Wildlife Institute of India, the initiative sought to go beyond the study of ‘charismatic’ species… tigers, leopards, elephants and the like. I for one was delighted to be gifted a chance to delve into the secret life of the clouded leopard, one of the smallest and least-known of the big cats.

The clouded leopard, found mainly in the dense forests of Southeast Asia, is a true wonder of nature. Its unique blend of agility, strength, and adaptability and its coat pattern, adorned with cloud-like spots, is a sight to behold. While reading up on the cat, I also discovered that it possessed the largest canines among all cat species… in proportion to its skull size.

One of the most exceptional features of the clouded leopard is its ability to navigate treetops gracefully and precisely. Charismatic beyond measure, its long tail serves as a crucial balancing aid, while its powerful limbs allow it to execute breathtaking leaps from tree to tree. It’s a sight to behold in the wild. But the exquisite cat faces far too many threats from humans, including habitat loss, poaching, and the illegal wildlife trade that places a huge bounty on its skin.

Exploring Manas: Where beauty meets biodiversity
The Manas National Park is nestled in the Eastern Himalaya in Assam, India, a place renowned for its rich wildlife and magnificent landscape. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a tiger reserve, an elephant reserve, and a biodiversity hotspot, this biodiverse haven offers a chance to witness the wonders of pristine natural habitats. The park encompasses dense forests and lush grasslands, with the majestic Manas river flowing through its heart.
Within this landscape resides a diverse array of flora and fauna, including the iconic Bengal tiger, greater one-horned rhinoceros, Asian elephant, and, of course, the clouded leopard. As I explored the park’s intricate network of trails, I immersed myself in a symphony of sounds and sights that created an ethereal experience.

Chasing Clouded Leopards

Our purpose was to enhance our understanding of Neofelis nebulosa by determining its population density, habitat preferences, and how it manages to coexist with tigers, leopards, and dholes in the Manas National Park. We began with a comprehensive questionnaire survey to gather valuable information from forest officials about clouded leopard sightings, or indirect signs of their presence. Armed with this baseline data, we set out to place motion-sensing cameras along trails and nullahs (seasonal drainages), where we had the greatest chance to obtain images of the secretive felids.

After three or four months of sampling, we still had no direct sightings of our subject in the wild and all too few captures in our camera traps. We decided therefore to innovate. We baited a few camera traps by placing chicken or fish in front of the cameras, adding lures using a wooden stick wrapped with cotton cloth, and soaking in a pungent mixture of rotten eggs, chicken, mutton, and other odorous substances. We nicknamed the malodorous (to our noses) device as ‘the stink bomb’. While we hoped to photo-capture clouded leopards to identify specific individuals, we ended up getting a whole lot of images of the rich diversity of Manas’ carnivores, particularly civets and tiger cubs. The intricacies of fieldwork, coupled with the unpredictability of nature, turned out to be a far more daunting task than we had anticipated.

Recognising the clouded leopard’s preference for tree-dwelling, we contemplated placing cameras in trees. But that did not work. Nevertheless, armed with unwavering determination, we were determined to uncover the secrets of wild clouded leopard life. Every new challenge stimulated us to drum up greater strength and resolve. Over three years, we ended up placing a mind-boggling 473 camera traps on the ground, within a one kilometre grid-cell-system.

There was no way we were even going to contemplate giving up.

A haven of biodiversity: the moist mixed deciduous forest, a preferred habitat of the clouded leopard, teems with life as sunlight filters through the dense canopy, nurturing a diverse ecosystem. Photo: Urjit Bhatt.

Success At Last!

Despite our dogged determination and best efforts, and a monumental sampling endeavour that totalled 11,000 camera-trapping days, we managed to capture the elusive clouded leopard on camera just 21 times. But the effort was more than worth it.

After analysing the images and their unique coat patterns, we identified 12 individual clouded leopards. While our encounters with these mysterious cats were rare, our data provided us with the information we needed to estimate the population density of clouded leopards in the Manas National Park.

Our study also offered valuable insights into clouded leopard biology. We discovered that these cats preferred habitats with lush vegetation, dense canopies, and abundant small prey, such as gallinaceous birds, hares, porcupines, and primates. Our camera-trap image analysis revealed that though there was some overlap in the times of day when clouded leopards and other carnivores, including tigers, leopards, dholes, and Asiatic black bears, were recorded, each species had its unique ‘peak activity’ times. We surmised that this was probably a way species managed to avoid conflict with one another!

A deployed camera trap. These movement-triggered cameras are a crucial tool for studying elusive wildlife species, especially in dense forests such as Manas. Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Institute of India.

Examining their spatial distribution, we found that clouded leopards seemed to be elusive wanderers, almost as though they were playing a mysterious game of hide-and-seek within the forest. Curiously, we never observed any definitive avoidance patterns, or co-occurrence with other predators. One particular observation was that clouded leopards probably sought refuge in treetops when encountering larger predators. Although our camera traps couldn’t capture this behaviour, it opens the door to exciting possibilities for future research.

Our work underscored the significance of the Manas National Park as a vital refuge for clouded leopards in Northeastern India. The park’s intact primary forests and numerous small prey species make it a vital stronghold for these elusive cats. Additionally, our findings hinted at some spatio-temporal segregation that facilitates the coexistence of clouded leopards with other sympatric carnivores, potentially minimising competition and reducing the risk of intraguild predation, or IGP, involving the killing and occasional eating of a different, possibly competing, species.

Coexistence in the wild: Carnivores of Manas
One of the most intriguing aspects of Manas National Park is the web of coexistence among different carnivore species, i.e. tiger, leopard, dhole, Asiatic black bear, and clouded leopard. The secret to their coexistence lies in the fact that each predator occupies a unique ecological niche within the shared habitat, exhibiting distinct adaptations and behaviours.
As the apex predator, the tiger commands the forests with its strength and stealth, while the leopard, a master of camouflage, thrives in a blend of trees and open terrain. The dhole, with its social dynamics and hunting prowess, showcases the power of teamwork. The Asiatic black bear’s omnivorous diet and tree-climbing skills make it a versatile forest inhabitant. Lastly, with its arboreal prowess, the clouded leopard gracefully traverses the treetops in pursuit of smaller prey.
Together, these sympatric carnivores illustrate the intricate web of interactions and interdependencies that shape the ecosystem. This highlights the critical need to protect their habitat, ensuring continued coexistence.

In Conclusion

The shy and elusive nature of the clouded leopard in the wild is unbelievably challenging. Even after dedicating three years to conducting surveys in its habitat, we regretfully never physically saw this mysterious cat in its natural habitat. Instead, we were forced to rely only on motion-detecting camera traps to gain glimpses into the mysterious inner lives of clouded leopards.

Given their elusive nature, sharing data on their biology necessitates a collaborative approach. We can deepen our understanding of the clouded leopard’s behaviour, habitat requirements, diet, and population dynamics through collaboration and data sharing with all manner of people willing to spend time and energy in the cat’s forests. This would include local communities, guards, other researchers, and possibly even a lucky short-visit naturalist or photographer. Such collective efforts will pave the way for the creation of effective conservation strategies, ensuring the long-term survival of these elusive creatures in the threatened forests of Southeast Asia.

Urjit Bhatt is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Animal Ecology & Conservation Biology at the Wildlife Institute of India.
Salvador Lyngdoh is a carnivore ecologist and works as a scientist and Associate Professor with the Department of Landscape Level Planning & Management at the Wildlife Institute of India.


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