Species of the week: Formosan clouded leopard

If an animal is no longer observed by humans, has it gone extinct? Such is typically the case, as it was for the Formosan clouded leopard. Declared extinct in 2013 after a years-long project to capture one on camera failed, the predatory cat was reportedly spotted by rangers twice last year in a remote part of Taiwan.

The clouded leopard is not closely related to the leopard, but has its own genus (Neofelis), separate from the big cats (Panthera). In 2006, the single species of clouded leopard was split in two: Neofelis nebulosa is found on the Asian mainland, while Neofelis diardi, the Sunda clouded leopard, occurs only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The cat recently believed to be extinct is yet another subspecies (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura), which is only found in Taiwan.

The last official sighting of the animal was in 1983. However, National Taitung University’s Department of Life Science professor Liu Chiung-hsi told Yahoo News that he wasn’t surprised there hadn’t been a sighting, since the animal is vigilant and purposely elusive, avoiding human contact.

“I believe this animal still does exist,” he said.

The Formosan clouded leopard is an incredible climber, reaching great heights in forest trees, and exceptionally nimble at staying above ground, having adapted to a life in the trees, with rotating ankles for agility, and super long teeth to help them grasp prey up in the trees where they can’t free their paws to help. The animal can climb headfirst down a tree, something very few cats in the animal kingdom can do.

“They are phenomenal athletes. They can climb like no cat I’ve ever seen. They can hang from one paw; hang upside down. I have seen them do stuff that is just amazing!” said Bonnie Breitbeil, the Clouded Leopard SSP Coordinator and International Studbook Keeper for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

Alangyi Village rangers in Taiwan claim to have seen the cats hunting goats on a cliff in Taitung County’s Daren Township. As a result of the sightings, members of the Alangyi Village held a tribal meeting to create a plan to prohibit outsiders from hunting in the area, and to ask the Forestry Bureau to stop disruptive activities such as logging.

Though these cats aren’t terribly fond of humans, we can’t help but fawn over images of them. Frankly, clouded leopards are adorable. Their faces and ears maintain a youthful appearance even as they age, making them look like big kittens throughout their lives. It’s probably best for them that they’ve avoided human contact as long as they have.