Nepal’s Clouded Leopard

Found in Southeast Asian countries, including northeast India, Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as in the eastern Himalayas, parts of China and western Malaysia, clouded leopards have been classified as vulnerable by IUCN since 2008. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources gathers information from conservation organizations around the world to compile the IUCN Red List, documenting species considered to be endangered, with the aim of raising awareness of conservation issues among authorities and the public. It is estimated that the global population of clouded leopards is fewer than 10,000 adults, with indications that this number is decreasing and conservation measures need to be taken.

Clouded leopards have very distinctive markings on their yellow-brown to dark-grey coats. The large, dark-edged random shaped markings resemble clouds, prompting the felid’s common and scientific names – clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), with nebulosus being Latin for ‘cloudy’. This unusual cat weighs between 15 and 23 kgs, with a shoulder height of between 25 and 40 centimeters. The females of the species are noticeably smaller than the males, although both sexes are heavily built with the longest canine teeth recorded for felids – the biological family of all cats, large and small. The clouded leopard falls somewhere between the definitions of large and small cats, with characteristics common to both.

The clouded leopard is a nimble climber, and with its short, flexible legs, with sharp claws sheathed in large paws, it has no trouble finding its way safely through forests at canopy level, making dense forests its preferred habitat. Its long tail aids its ability to balance and the clouded leopard can climb along branches by hanging on them upside-down.

This fascinating felid has a number of subspecies, with the Neofelis nebulosa macrosceloides being most commonly found in Nepal. All clouded leopards are reclusive by nature, and for this reason many aspects of their behavior in the wild remains unknown. It is, however, known that they are primarily nocturnal; they prey on mammals both on the ground and in trees; and have the ability to make a number of sounds, such as growling, hissing, moaning, snorting and mewing.

New-born clouded leopards are blind and helpless, with their spots being solid and dark. It can take up to ten days for young leopards to see, and by three months of age they are weaned. Their adult coat pattern is set by the age of six months, they are independent at around ten months, and reach sexual maturity when they are two years old.

Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats to this already vulnerable species, while traders dealing in exotic animals are also a problem. Although the clouded leopard is included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), these rules are difficult to enforce. Clouded leopards are protected by national legislation in Nepal, with hunting prohibited. Educating the public on the necessity of conserving natural resources is one of the ways the clouded leopard can be protected in Nepal, and other countries where it is found.