The clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa, Neofelis diardi) is a medium-sized cat. It is 2ft to 3ft 6 in (60 to 110 cm) long and weighs between 25 to 44 lb (11 and 20 kg). It has a tan or tawny coat. It is distinctively marked with large, irregularly shaped, dark-edged ellipses. These ellipses are shaped like clouds, hence both its common and original scientific name. Because of its distinct skull structure, it is considered sufficiently different to be the only member of its genus. The clouded leopard has not been recorded in Java since Neolithic times and is also thought to be extinct in the wild in Taiwan. The last confirmed sighting of a clouded leopard there was in 1983.
The clouded leopard has a stocky build and, proportionately, the longest canine teeth (2 in) of any living feline. This led early researchers to speculate that it preyed on large land-dwelling mammals. However, while remarkably little is known about the natural history and behavioral habits of this species in the wild, it is now thought that its primary prey includes arboreal and terrestrial mammals, It feeds on things such as gibbons, Pig-tailed macaques, and Proboscis Monkeys. It also feeds on small mammals, deer, birds, porcupines, and domestic livestock.
In conjunction with the fact that their major prey animals live in trees, clouded leopards are excellent climbers. Short, flexible legs, large paws, and keen claws combine to make them very sure-footed. Clouded leopards can possess tails as long as their bodies, further aiding in balance. Surprisingly, the cats can climb while hanging upside-down under branches and descend tree trunks headfirst.
The clouded leopard is a tree dweller, and has a squirrel-like agility like the margay of South America. In captivity, clouded leopards routinely hang by their hind legs with their long tails swinging for balance. They run head first down tree trunks. Little is known about their behavior in the wild. It is assumed that they are highly arboreal and that a favored hunting tactic is to drop on prey from the trees.
The habits of the clouded leopard are largely unknown because of the animal’s secretive nature. It is assumed that they are generally solitary creatures. Certainly they interact with other clouded leopards while engaged in activities relating to mating and rearing young. While it was once assumed that the clouded leopard was active only at night, the cats have now been observed during the day.
Females give birth to a litter of 1 to 5 cubs after a pregnancy period of about 85 to 93 days. The young are blind and helpless to begin with, much like the young of many other cats. Unlike adults, the kittens’ spots are “solid” – completely dark rather than dark rings. The young can see within about 10 days of birth, are active within 5 weeks. They probably become independent at about 10 months of age. Clouded leopards reach sexual maturity at two years of age and females are able to bear one litter each year. Adults in captivity have lived as long as 17 years. In the wild, it is reasonable to assume a considerably shorter lifespan. These figures give one hope that the clouded leopard will be able to increase its numbers with careful management.
Despite these facts, captive breeding programs met with little success in their early stages. This was largely because aggressive males frequently killed the females. Experience has taught keepers that carefully selected pairs of clouded leopards introduced and given opportunities to bond often breed successfully. This is more art than science and takes great patience to achieve.
Conservation and threats
Because the clouded leopard’s habits make it difficult to study, reliable estimates of its population do not exist. Habitat loss due to widespread deforestation and hunting for use in Chinese medicinal preparations are thought to be causing populations of clouded leopards to decline. Only six clouded leopards have ever been radio collared and their territorial movements monitored and recorded by scientists using radio telemetry. All of these cats were studied within Thailand. Almost all that is known of the clouded leopard comes from studies of the cats in captivity. Apart from anecdotal accounts very little is known of the clouded leopards’ natural history, ecology and behavior in the wild throughout its range.