A clouded future: Asia’s enigmatic clouded leopard threatened by palm oil

  • The clouded leopard is the least well-known of the big cats. Both species (Neofelis nebulosa and Neofelis diarti) are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN across their ranges.
  • Clouded leopard habitat falls within three of the world’s top palm oil producing countries: Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. While many questions remain about this elusive species’ ecology, it’s widely believed that palm oil development severely threatens its long-term survival in the wild.
  • At a recent workshop in Sabah, Malaysia, experts devised a 10-year action plan to help secure the Sunda clouded leopard in the state, where it’s estimated there are around 700 left in the wild.
  • Biologists who study the species are hopeful that enough time remains to save the species in the long term — if plantations and development take conservation into consideration.

Tigers and orangutans are the well-known faces of the palm oil crisis. But the enigmatic clouded leopard is equally threatened and almost unknown in comparison. Conservationists are looking at ways to make palm oil plantations work for it, rather than against it.

“We know very little about what [clouded leopards] eat, their social structure, their ecology, how much time they spend in trees… we know very, very little,” Ewan Macdonald, of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (CRU), told Mongabay. He studied the species for his PhD but has yet to see it in the wild, apart from through his camera trap images.

It’s what can be called a “small, big cat” says Anthony Giordano, founder and director of S.P.E.C.I.E.S., and has been largely overlooked by both the public and conservationists in comparison to some of its more famous counterparts like tigers or snow leopards. “When you think of a secretive species it’s quite normal to think of snow leopards, but I think we know more about them than we know about clouded leopards.”

Contrary to their name, clouded leopards are not closely related to leopards. Photo by Charles Ryan / Sticky Rice Travel

All this secrecy brings about a sense of déjà-vu when talking to those who study clouded leopards, as a “we just don’t know” response is common. This is not a reflection of the skills of these biologists; rather, it’s testament to the evasive prowess of this elusive and secretive jungle cat.

We know so little about clouded leopards that only in 2006 did scientists discover that there are in fact two distinct species. Neofelis nebulosa is found on the Southeast Asian mainland up to China and as far west as the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. Neofelis diarti, or the Sunda clouded leopard, is found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, at the heart of palm oil territory. Both species are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN across their ranges.

The palm oil problem

What we do know about the clouded leopard is that palm oil development is posing a serious threat to its survival in the wild. Clouded leopard habitat falls within three of the world’s top palm oil producing countries: Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Sunda clouded leopard is particularly threatened by the industry as both Sumatra and Borneo have seen much of their lowland forests cleared for tree monocultures like oil palm plantations.

Over the past 40 years Borneo has lost over one third of its forest cover to logging, fires and plantations, continually shrinking the Sunda’s habitat. At current rates of deforestation, the island will lose an additional six million hectares of forest by 2020, according to WWF.

Today the island’s forests are dissected by around 8 million hectares of oil palm plantations, estimated at just under half of the world’s total palm oil production area.

Scientists say we still have a lot to learn about clouded leopards. But what we do know is that they are highly arboreal, meaning they spend a lot of their time in the trees, and prefer contiguously forested areas. Their broad paws and long, flowing tails are adaptations for a tree-hugging lifestyle that allow them to skirt along branches and move headfirst down trunks.

Clouded leopards are tremendous climbers and spend a lot of time in the trees. An enigmatic and elusive species, scientists are still piecing together their behavior. Photo by Thomas Meignan/DGFC

They don’t just love trees, however — they need them to survive. “Cloudies,” as Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation director Jim Sanderson calls them, eat, sleep and possibly even hunt from trees. “This is a forest cat whose habitat is being destroyed by loss of habitat due to conversion to, mostly, oil palm.”

“Clouded leopards can’t really survive in palm oil areas, and they don’t really use them,” adds Benoit Goossens, director of the Danau Girang Field Centre, which is jointly managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department and Cardiff University. He’s taken part in studies to learn how clouded leopards respond to palm plantations around protected areas in Sabah, the largest palm oil producing state in Malaysia. “They avoid plantations as much as they can.”

Aside from eliminating the clouded leopard’s favorite habitat, palm oil plantations have also diced up the forests of Borneo into ecological islands, many isolated from other areas.

Macdonald explains that the clouded leopard’s aversion to human-affected landscapes makes it much harder for individuals to move through the plantations to other areas of habitat. This means fewer “dispersing individuals” reach isolated forest fragments. In ideal conditions, these wanderers would move between populations and add new genes to the breeding mix. Eliminating this gene flow could cause more and more inbreeding in some populations and have long-term consequences for the species’ survival in the wild, Macdonald says.

He points to the Crocker Range in Sabah, in the easternmost part of Malaysian Borneo, where it’s estimated that only around 20 clouded leopards exist in a protected area that measures around 1,400 square kilometers. Without new individuals being able to travel into the area from connected forests, Macdonald says it’s likely the population will need to be supplemented through human intervention to survive.

Genetic analysis indicates the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi, pictured) diverged around 1.4 million years ago after the land bridge connecting Borneo and Sumatra to mainland Asia submerged. Photo by Charles Ryan / Sticky Rice Travel
Ideal clouded leopard habitat is densely forested. Scientists believe they can survive in habitat that’s been selectively logged, but not long-term in oil palm plantations. Photo by Wai-Ming Wong.
A road cuts along the side of Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah, Malaysia, with no buffer between the forest on the left and the palm plantations on the right. Tabin is one of the areas that is almost entirely isolated from nearby forest areas, posing major problems for the clouded leopard population within. Photo by Mike Prince via Flickr.

But true to their enigmatic nature, clouded leopards can deviate from expectations even when scientists think they have the answers.

Andrew Hearn, also of Oxford University’s Wildlife CRU, has spent several years studying the clouded leopard and other Borneo species and says the cats will “on rare occasions” traverse palm plantations. He radio-collared five clouded leopards in the Lower Kinabatangan in Sabah, an area that is highly fragmented by palm plantations, to see how they behaved.

“[T]hese cats were willing to move small distances through plantation areas which link adjacent areas of forest,” Hearn said via email. “Oil palm plantation habitats, particularly recently cleared areas…tend to resist the movements of these cats, whereas forest habitats facilitated their movements.” He describes another incident where a female was found 10 kilometers from the nearest patch of forest after crossing plantations.

“These fleeting insights into the world of these cats offer some hope that plantations may not necessarily prevent the dispersal of individuals from isolated forest patches,” Hearn said. But he emphasized that more still needs to be learned. “We still do not understand the distances over which these cats are willing to move through these human dominated landscapes.”

Andrew Hearn radio collaring a male Sunda clouded leopard as part of a study to discover how the species behaves in human-impacted environments. “Evidence strongly suggests that Sunda clouded leopards are able to persist in forest exposed to a range of anthropogenic impacts, but that they are not found in oil palm plantations,” Hearn said. Photo © DGCF.

However, while the cats may traverse plantations at a stretch, Hearn said that in doing so they become exposed to other dangers — the wandering female was ultimately found dead at the side of a busy road. This, he says, makes the need to identify, protect and improve connectivity by restoring forest corridors a top priority for clouded leopard conservation.

Snares, bushmeat and plantations

Habitat loss isn’t the only problem for Sunda clouded leopards. Plantations and poaching can go hand-in-hand, say those who study the species.

One study, published in the journal Wildlife Research in 2013, investigated poaching by oil palm plantation workers in Peninsular Malaysia and found that the practice occurred on and around small scale plantations and industrial plantations alike. The researchers also found poaching was an issue on “eco-friendly” plantations — which are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the world’s largest palm oil sustainability certification body. On top of poaching by plantation workers, the study observed that poachers from outside the plantations regularly used plantation access roads to hunt in the forest.

In most plantation areas in Sabah, for instance, Goosens says there are no buffers and hunters can go straight into the forest. He said this kind of poaching is occurring in the state’s Kinabatangang Wildlife Sanctuary and Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Whether or not there is extensive direct targeting of clouded leopards by poachers is another question that is still up in the air.

“We find them quite frequently on social media. Clouded leopards slaughtered for skin or for meat, and we have evidence of clouded leopards traded as pets,” Goosens said. “[But] we don’t feel that in Sabah there is direct poaching of clouded leopards, yet.”

A study from 2015 found a trend that is worrying conservationists: Clouded leopards, both dead and alive, may be being traded in greater numbers than tigers in some markets across Asia. Experts think that the scarcity of tigers has led to poachers shifting to clouded leopards.

“When a species gets so rare, it’s natural for poachers to move on to another species,” says Dr. Wai-Ming Wong, assistant director of Field Programs for Panthera, an international wild cat conservation organization.

Macdonald has also heard stories of clouded leopards being poached, but believes the strongest threat comes from bushmeat hunters catching the species’ prey. Last year a study found that 60 percent of the known prey species of Neofelis nebulosa and 50 percent of the Sunda clouded leopard’s prey are threatened with extinction.

Snaring is also a widespread issue across the species’ range. Goosens says that hunters will go out into the forest, lay their traps for deer or pigs and easily injure or kill a clouded leopard in the process.

Making palm oil work for clouded leopards

In early June, conservationists, government officials and industry leaders gathered to discuss a new action plan to save the Sunda clouded leopard in Sabah, where they estimate only around 700 remain in the wild. Ten years of data-gathering — including thousands of camera-trap photos — led to the event. Conservationists hope the plan will start in 2018 once it is approved by the state government.

The plan includes a raft of new protection measures from introducing better poaching patrols to increasing connectivity between forest fragments. It seems in Sabah, at least, there is momentum to put the clouded leopard securely on the conservation map.

The event was funded by Yayasan Sime Darby, the foundation arm of Sime Darby, one of the largest palm oil corporations in the world. The company has been funding clouded leopard conservation under their “Big 9” project.

“Conservation efforts can co-exist with oil palm development if it is controlled and companies like Sime Darby invest in conservation efforts,” Yatela Zainal Abidin, CEO of Yayasan Sime Darby, wrote in an email. She believes that industry can also act as a bridge between conservationists and government.

Clouded leopards are arboreal cats, meaning they spend a lot of time in the trees. But when they take to the ground they can be snapped by camera traps, like this one in Sumatra. Photo by Wai-Ming Wong.

The conservationists who spoke to Mongabay are in broad agreement that palm oil development is not compatible with clouded leopard conservation as it stands now, but also say that it doesn’t have to be this way.

At the moment “they just cut down huge areas and plant their palm oil, without taking into account the wider areas,” Wong said. He explained that one potential solution — “wildlife friendly farming” — could be incorporated into palm oil development. One way of doing this, adds Goosens, could be to identify plantations that act as barriers between clouded leopard habitat and work with them to create corridors to reconnect isolated forest fragments.

As part of the action plan, a toolkit is currently being developed by WildCRU, Danau Girang Field Centre and others to use extensive data collected in Sabah to identify potential areas for reconnection. By including threat assessments and population estimates, it’s hoped the toolkit will more sustainably shape future development in the state, lessening the impacts on clouded leopard territory.

Meanwhile, to eliminate poaching related to palm plantations, one plan is to develop Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) between Sabah’s Forestry Department and oil palm plantations to prohibit hunting in protected areas and to implement Spatial Monitoring And Reporting Tool (SMART) patrols. Goosens says that MoUs have already reduced poaching on some plantations in Sabah.

An inquisitive clouded leopard peers into a camera trap near the Danau Girang Field Centre in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo © DGCF.

Without action, he believes the outlook for the Sunda clouded leopard in Sabah is bleak.

“If [connectivity] is not done then of course the population will decrease little by little in all of these fragments until you just have a few individuals staying in batches, probably in central Sabah,” Goosens said.

Times are certainly tough for both clouded leopard species across their ranges. If the expansion of oil palm plantations continues as it has been, and without suitable corridors connecting protected areas or adequate anti-poaching measures, scientists expect it will only get tougher for the smallest big cat. Given this uncertain future, the question of whether efforts should be made to preserve the species’ DNA was raised at the workshop in Sabah, in case it becomes extinct.

Wong doesn’t agree that this eleventh-hour solution is needed just yet, and believes that the species is doing “quite well” despite the threats it faces.

“It’s not too late,” he said.

Conservationists like Wong realize palm oil isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. On the contrary, the industry is continuing to grow and spread, both in Southeast Asia and other tropical countries around the world. Thailand is ramping up its production and the crop is an integral part of Indonesia and Malaysia’s development plans, providing employment for millions of people across both countries.

The key, Wong says, is for conservationists, industry and government to learn to work together to make palm oil less harmful.

“[Let’s] put down the knowledge that we have…and say if you’re going to build here then take these factors into account so both can benefit,” he said.

Macdonald also sees that with the right changes to current palm oil practice, Asia’s tree-hugging wild cat won’t wink out on our watch:

“We know that with many big cats, if we can just leave them alone and preserve their habitat, they can do OK.”

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Article originally published at mongabay.com.