Recent findings say the wildcat that roamed the island's lowlands was the same species as that found across parts of Southeast Asia, which has raised the question of reintroducing the animal to Taiwan.
In 1983, the China Times newspaper ran a photograph of what was considered new evidence of the Formosan clouded leopard, a medium-sized wildcat that once roamed the lowlands of Taiwan. Grainy and unclear, it showed what appeared to be a young clouded leopard, dead, at the bottom of a deep pit--an aboriginal trap. Its photographer, a university research assistant, said he took the photo deep in the wilderness area of Dawu Mountain in Taitung County, southern Taiwan.
The image electrified biologists and ecologists throughout Taiwan. Not since the early part of the 20th century, when aboriginal hunters still traded clouded leopard pelts to Japanese soldiers, had there been hard evidence for the species' survival. This photo seemed to confirm what many had long hoped for--that deep in the mountains of southern Taiwan, the Formosan clouded leopard clung to existence.
By late 1985, government officials had invited famed wildcat expert Alan Rabinowitz, former director of the Science and Exploration Program at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and current chief executive officer of big cat advocacy group Panthera, to lead a survey team into Dawu to find further evidence. While the search was unsuccessful, the attention created a flurry of interest in Taiwan's ecology. Biologists, ecologists, even anthropologists, descended upon Dawu to study this wilderness area and its few aboriginal residents. With strong support from Rabinowitz, Dawu Nature Reserve was established in 1988 as Taiwan's largest nature reserve.
The photo eventually proved dubious, however. Traps like the one shown in the image--deep pits lined with sharpened bamboo stakes--are almost unknown in Taiwan, where many Aboriginal hunters prefer snares. In 1989, when wildlife biology professor Kurtis Pei asked the China Times for a look at the original photo, they told him that they purge their archives after five years, and a recent purge included the image of the leopard. Pei says the researcher who shot the photo told him he had lost the only surviving copy. The original image had disappeared.
"I suspect the photo was actually taken in Southeast Asia. Probably Borneo," says Pei, head of the Institute of Wildlife Conservation at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST). It might even have been another kind of cat, one of the breeds that are often mistaken for young clouded leopards, he says.
The Formosan clouded leopard has always been in some sense mythical. Historical records dating at least to the 13th century document a thriving trade in clouded leopard pelts out of Taiwan. Robert Swinhoe, the 19th century British naturalist who introduced much of Taiwan's wildlife to the international scientific community, observed aboriginals bringing clouded leopard pelts for trade to port cities such as Tainan. Yet, save for a single Japanese anthropologist in 1900, there is no record of a non-aboriginal having ever seen a live Formosan clouded leopard.
These days, reports of the leopards in Taiwan are treated like UFO sightings. From time to time in recent years, rumors have drifted out of the mountains of aboriginal hunters having seen or even killed clouded leopards, but few experts consider the stories credible.
On the other hand, Taiwan's steep mountain geography as well as the danger of earthquakes and landslides contribute to many areas remaining as tracts of untouched wilderness or at least largely undeveloped. Moreover, since the passage of the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1989 and tight controls on hunting since then, many of Taiwan's large mammals are beginning to recover from decades of overhunting and habitat abuse.
So, against all the odds, a few diehard biologists held out hope that Formosan clouded leopards might still survive. One such believer was Chiang Bo-jen, assistant research fellow at National Taiwan University's Experimental Forest in Nantou County. "I love hiking in the backcountry," he says. "I'd been to some of the very remote areas and I could see lots of sambar deer, serow, muntjac, macaque, lots of wildlife. I just thought, if there are so many animals out there, why isn't the clouded leopard there?"
Slightly built and soft-spoken, Chiang's enthusiasm for the clouded leopard is clear when he talks about the species. He says his fascination with the clouded leopard is an extension of bird watching. When bird watchers see a new species, they get excited, he says, "and when they see a rare species, they get even more excited."
Notch on a Belt
However, Chiang rejects the idea that finding the clouded leopard would be just a notch on a naturalist's belt, albeit a remarkable one. The creature has more of a "spiritual" significance, he says. "A forest with clouded leopards and a forest without clouded leopards mean something different. A forest without clouded leopards is ... dead."
Chiang's fascination with wilderness led him to abandon a career in computer engineering for wildlife research. He became a field researcher for Lee Ling-ling, a professor in the Institute of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at National Taiwan University (NTU), as well as NPUST's Kurtis Pei and Sun Yuan-hsun, an associate professor also at NPUST's Institute of Wildlife Conservation.
Sun supported Chiang in his conviction that Formosan clouded leopards might still roam Taiwan's remote wilderness and the field researcher entered the Wildlife and Fisheries doctoral program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the United States in 1999, making the search for the wildcat the focus of his dissertation.
Between 2001 and 2004, Chiang searched the Dawu Mountain wilderness for signs of clouded leopards, simultaneously conducting one of the most thorough surveys of wilderness ever done in Taiwan. With his eight-member research team, he spent between 10 and 20 days a month in the Dawu Mountain backcountry, often using machetes to chop through the dense brush. His team slept under tarpaulins and bought the cheapest gear possible, knowing whatever they took with them would only last a few trips. They hung 377 camera traps from trees, recording more than 13,000 images of everything from wild hogs to Siberian weasels. Their 232 catnip baited "hair snares" caught hairs from four different predators, but there was no sign of clouded leopards.
"Scientifically, I cannot say for certain that there are no clouded leopards, but I am 99 percent sure that clouded leopards are extinct [in Taiwan]," he says. "Even if they are not really extinct, they are at least ecologically extinct. They could not form a viable population."
The world's largest global environmental network, the UN-affiliated International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), harbors not even these doubts. Kristin Nowell, co-founder of the US-based nonprofit agency Cat Action Treasury and one of the IUCN's evaluators for the clouded leopard species report, writes in the 2008 report, "The clouded leopard is extinct on the island of Taiwan."
Disappointed by the failure of his four-year study to find any sign of the clouded leopard in Taiwan, Chiang has shifted gears, focusing on the possibility of reintroducing this mysterious creature.
Reintroduction means placing individuals of a locally extinct species in an area of their former habitat. It may involve trans-locating wild animals from areas where they still thrive to the areas they are currently absent from, such as the program that reintroduced wolves caught in Canada to areas of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. A reintroduction program could also involve freeing captive-bred animals of a species in their former habitat, as with the breeding and release of California condors in southern California and the Grand Canyon in the United States, and Baja California in Mexico.
Chiang offers a number of reasons for reintroducing clouded leopards to Taiwan, the foremost of which is re-establishing biodiversity. Formosan black bears occupy the top position in the food web, but 90 percent of their diet consists of plant matter, along with carrion and the occasional unlucky deer. Clouded leopards, however, eat meat exclusively, preying on muntjac, macaques, serows and even sambar deer, making them a top carnivore.
Chiang says that the disappearance of a top carnivore such as the clouded leopard may result in a host of negative consequences, or "cascade effects," rippling through the ecosystem. Prey species such as sambar deer, wild hogs and macaques may overpopulate their habitats, a big change in Taiwan where only recently these species faced threats of extinction. Rebounding herbivore populations could lead to overbrowsing of the forest undergrowth, stripping habitats vital to many bird species and ultimately devastating forest ecosystems. Chiang reports there is "some very clean understory" already in the area surveyed for his study.
In the absence of a top carnivore, smaller mesopredators--medium-sized predators--such as yellow-throated martens and Siberian weasels are freed from subsequent competition and even predation, Chiang says. He notes that sightings of yellow-throated martens are increasing dramatically, even as high up as the weather station atop Jade Mountain, Taiwan's highest peak. Too many small predators will overhunt forest rodents and ground- dwelling birds, leading to further imbalances, he says. "We have to maintain a well-balanced food web," Chiang says, adding that clouded leopards would effectively manage both issues of too many herbivores and medium-sized predators.
In the Family
Clouded leopards are not actually part of the leopard family at all. They occupy a close, but unique genus, the Neofelis family, related to both big cats such as tigers and lions, as well as small cats such as the lynx.
Science once considered all clouded leopards to be part of a single species--Neofelis nebulosa--that was subdivided into four subspecies based on their geographic habitats, ranging from Nepal to southern mainland China and through Southeast Asia to Borneo and Sumatra. Taiwan's Formosan clouded leopard was considered one of these subspecies, Neofelis nebulosa brachyura.
In 2006, investigations into clouded leopard DNA performed by the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at Maryland's National Cancer Institute in the United States concluded that clouded leopards are divided into two distinct species. Neofelis nebulosa inhabits areas from Nepal to Southeast Asia while Neofelis diardi inhabits Borneo and Sumatra.
In fact, it was DNA taken from a clouded leopard pelt at the National Taiwan Museum--part of a Rukai tribal garment--that led to the recent findings showing that the Formosan clouded leopard belonged to Neofelis nebulosa, the same species as that found in mainland Asia, rather than a subspecies. The new findings lend support to the technical possibility of reintroducing Neofelis nebulosa to Taiwan, as animals from neighboring countries would be identical genetically to the clouded leopards that once inhabited the island.
This could be important for the species because worldwide the outlook for clouded leopards is bleak. Clouded leopards share much of their range with tigers and leopards and face similar risks from habitat destruction, overhunting of their prey species and poaching. The IUCN lists the animal as "vulnerable," estimating that there are fewer than 10,000 clouded leopards in existence, with fewer than 1,000 in any given population. They also warn that 10 percent of their habitat is destroyed every year.
Wong Siew Te, a Malaysian wildlife expert with extensive research experience throughout Southeast Asia, says the situation in Thailand is heading toward "empty forests," forests poached clean of wildlife. Wong, a former student of NPUST's Kurtis Pei, says that, by contrast, Taiwan has made a marked turnaround in environmental protection since the 1980s. In 1987, the government formally created the Cabinet-level Environmental Protection Administration, which had begun to make headway against pollution and rampant wildlife poaching by the late 1990s. Many biologists and backcountry enthusiasts agree that, since then, much of Taiwan's wildlife population has been making a comeback.
"When I first went to Taiwan in the late '80s, it was a mess in terms of conservation" Wong says. "Today, Taiwan is a great country in terms of conservation."
Kurtis Pei, head of NPUST's Institute of Wildlife Conservation. Pei says social issues would be 90 percent of the difficulty in reintroducing the clouded leopard to Taiwan. (Courtesy of Kurtis Pei)
Chiang Bo-jen suggests Taiwan could thus serve as a "bio-reservoir" for the wild population of clouded leopards. NPUST's Kurtis Pei feels the risks of poaching would be low given the relative affluence of Taiwan's aboriginals, adding that through government efforts, ecological awareness among aboriginals is high. "I don't believe [aboriginal poaching] would be a risk. I'm not so worried about this," Pei says.
Despite the potential benefits of such a scheme, reintroducing the clouded leopard would face enormous hurdles. Carnivores caught in the wild are far more likely to survive reintroduction as they already have the skills to hunt and survive in a rugged environment, according to species reintroduction experts from the Animal Behaviour Research Group at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Clouded leopards are known for their shyness and skill at avoiding detection, so it is unlikely that wild animals could be captured in sufficient quantity for a reintroduction effort to Taiwan.
An 18-month study of clouded leopards and leopard cats in Thailand's Khao Yai National Park by Texas A&M University yielded only two clouded leopards captured alive, both of which displayed signs of previous injury. The research account suggests that clouded leopards encountered the study's traps, but did not enter them, implying a highly evasive nature. Wong Siew Te is credited with the first live capture of a Bornean clouded leopard, in the 2008. Private citizens donated a male clouded leopard that can be seen at the Taipei Zoo, while a female came to the zoo via customs officials who seized the animal as an illegal import, according to Eva Wang, a technician and curator of the temperate zone animals at the zoo.
Captive breeding is also problematic for the species, with efforts requiring minute oversight. Wang notes that males are known to attack females, with up to 15 percent of female clouded leopards dying in captive breeding attempts. She says that the zoo's two clouded leopards have never bred, but attributes this to the female having a skin condition for a number of years.
The Clouded Leopard Project, a non-profit conservation group founded by a chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, advises taking extensive precautions during breeding attempts such as pairing the animals early in life, before either is one year old. The group also recommends that the pair be introduced to each other slowly, over a matter of months, with progressing levels of contact. Still, it cautions that "sudden and unexplained instances of males fatally attacking females have occurred during the process," even with pairs having longstanding familiarity or when keepers only momentarily turned their backs. The two cats at Taipei Zoo are currently housed adjacent to each other in the hopes that familiarity will lead to romance, but according to keeper Chen Jin-ming, "It seems they don't fall in love." Artificial insemination has also been largely ineffective at increasing global populations of captive clouded leopards.
One bright spot in clouded leopard breeding programs has been the Thailand Clouded Leopard Breeding Project based at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Chonburi, Thailand. Developed by a consortium of zoos in Thailand and the United States, the program began in May 2002. Relying on the depth of expertise of its US and Thai staff, the program has achieved significant success in breeding the cats, with more than 24 clouded leopard kittens born so far. Kurtis Pei says the zoo would be one possible source of clouded leopards if Taiwan were to go forward with a reintroduction program.
Another issue would be finding enough suitable habitat for the animal. Rising from sea level to nearly 4,000 meters in less than 100 kilometers in some places, Taiwan is one of the world's steepest countries. On the one hand, the rugged terrain precludes development in many regions, plus 16 percent of Taiwan is protected in nature reserves and national parks.
On the other hand, the mountainous terrain also presents a big obstacle to reintroducing the clouded leopard. Clouded leopards are mostly lowland creatures, occurring primarily below an altitude of 500 meters. In Taiwan, all such habitat has been developed. The areas remaining would be "secondary habitat" for the species at best. Clouded leopards can survive at elevations up to 2,000 meters, but only at very low population densities as the rugged terrain limits prey populations.
"The original habitat [of Taiwan] could only support marginal populations of clouded leopards, even including the lowlands," Pei says. With these lowlands gone, the size of suitable habitat left is very small.
In spite of this, Pei says it is still possible to find good habitat at 2,000 meters for animals such as muntjac, although it is scattered and limited, suggesting that similar areas could be linked via corridors of protected land to establish habitat specifically for a clouded leopard population. "You can do something in-between, from 500 to 1,500 meters ... and make that sustainable," he says.
Whether, in fact, such a population could be viable in the sense of becoming self-sustaining, genetically diverse and requiring a minimal amount of human intervention is another question. Chiang Bo-jen hypothesizes that Dawu Mountain and adjacent Twin Ghost-Lake Nature Reserve could support between 50 and 80 of the animals. Including the surrounding areas, and he suggests populations of up to 100 to 150 animals.
These numbers fall well below the minimum threshold of 500 animals that NTU's Lee Ling-ling considers necessary for a viable population. Then again, Malaysian expert Wong Siew Te says minimum viable population numbers differ by species, and many biologists consider 50 as an absolute minimum number for carnivores.
However, the ultimate deciding factors involved in whether or not Taiwan considers a program to reintroduce the clouded leopard are social and political. "Social issues are always the problem," Kurtis Pei says. "Five to 10 percent of the problems are ecological, 90 percent of the problems are social."
Frank Lin, a former conservation research manager and current habitat management specialist for the Forestry Bureau under the Cabinet-level Council of Agriculture, echoes those concerns. Lin says the bureau supports restoring environments to their original states in principle and that reintroduction of the clouded leopard is theoretically possible. He also says that if this kind of a plan gained community support, then special budgets could be created to fund such a program. But, he also cites a host of issues this kind of a plan might face, including political disagreement and social opposition.
"It would require long-term discussion, education and negotiation. Even among ecologists, there are many different opinions," Lin says. He speculates that people in urban areas might support such a proposal, but others, "especially those living in the mountain areas, may have a different opinion."
"Even if we know clouded leopards are not harmful to humans, some people may be scared of reintroducing them," Lin says, particularly when males can exceed 20 kilograms in weight. Clouded leopards have the longest fangs proportionate to their size of any cat and, according to Wong, have been known to kill animals as large as orangutans.
NTU's Lee Ling-ling is also skeptical, citing the reintroduction of Formosan sika deer at Kenting National Park, which never expanded beyond the park despite proposals to reintroduce them to Yangmingshan National Park. Lee says the plan failed because it lacked the support of the local residents and politicians. She says a successful clouded leopard reintroduction would require a "major change in perspective" among Taiwanese. "I don't think Taiwan's ready for that," she adds.
Attitudes are changing, however. Heightened awareness of environmental issues is found in everything from marketing campaigns to new legislation on Taiwan's greenhouse gas emissions and Kyoto Protocol standards. Even the image of the clouded leopard is commonly used on posters as a symbol of Taiwan. There might yet come a time when people are interested in restoring the original beauty of Taiwan's natural world, top carnivore and all. If that time comes, Chiang Bo-jen's vision of the forests alive with the Formosan clouded leopard could be a reality for Taiwan once again.
Timothy Ferry is a writer based in Taipei.
Copyright © 2009 by Timothy Ferry