Clouded leopard: First film of new Asia big cat species

by Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

The Sundaland clouded leopard, a recently described new species of big cat, has been caught on camera.

The film, the first footage of the cat in the wild to be made public, has been released by scientists working in the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Malaysia.

The Sundaland clouded leopard, only discovered to be a distinct species three years ago, is one of the least known and elusive of all cat species.

Two more rare cats, the flat-headed cat and bay cat, were also photographed.

Details of the discoveries are published in the latest issue of Cat News, the newsletter of the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“Clouded leopards are one of the most elusive cats. They are very hardly ever encountered and almost no detailed study about their ecology has been conducted,” says Mr Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany.

Mr Wilting is leader of a project that evaluates how changes to the forest in the Malaysian part of Borneo impact carnivores living there.

As part of that project, the team places a network of camera traps in the forest, that automatically photograph passing animals.

The team, which includes the Malaysian field scientist Azlan Mohamed, also conducts regular surveys at night, by shining a spotlight from the back of a vehicle driven around the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Sabah.

During one of these surveys, they encountered a Sundaland clouded leopard walking along a road.

“For the first eleven months we had not encountered a single clouded leopard during these night surveys,” says Mr Wilting.

“So every one of our team was very surprised when this clouded leopard was encountered.

“Even more surprising was that this individual was not scared by the light or the noises of the truck.

“For over five minutes this clouded leopard was just roaming around the car, which compared to the encounters with the other animals is very strange, as most species are scared and run away after we have spotted them.”

Film exists of a Sundaland clouded leopard held in an enclosure.

And a tourist is thought to have taken a 30 second video of a wild Sundaland clouded leopard in 2006, but that video has never been made public.

Until 2007, all clouded leopards living in Asia were thought to belong to a single species.

However, genetic studies revealed that there are actually two quite distinct clouded leopard species.

As well as the better known clouded leopard living on the Asian mainland ( Neofelis nebulosa ), scientists determined that a separate clouded leopard species lives on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

The two species are thought to have diverged over one million years ago.

This leopard is now known as the Sunda or Sundaland clouded leopard ( Neofelis diardi ), though it was previously and erroneously called the Bornean clouded leopard.

Since 2008, it has been listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.

The clouded leopard, the largest predator on Borneo, appears to live at very low densities within the reserve, as it has only rarely been photographed by the researchers or camera traps.

During the surveys, the research team also discovered a juvenile samba deer ( Cervus unicolor ) which had been killed by a clouded leopard.

The scientists suspect a large male clouded leopard made the kill, and had removed part of the front right leg.

Despite being a commercial forest that is sustainably logged for wood, the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Sabah, which is an area of approximately 550km square kilometres, holds all five wild Bornean cat species.

As well as capturing images of the clouded leopard, the researchers also recorded four other wild cat species.

One video shows a wild leopard cat scent-marking its territory.

This smaller species is more common in the area, and has been filmed before.

“But due to its mainly nocturnal behaviour, specific behaviours like the scent marking are rarely documented on camera,” says Mr Wilting.

More thrilling are the pictures taken of the other cats: the flat-headed cat ( Prionailurus planiceps ), bay cat ( Catopuma badia ) and marbled cat ( Pardofelis marmorata ).

“All three species are very special,” says Mr Wilting.

“The bay cat was special, as there has never been a confirmed record of this species in our study site.

“Therefore I really did not expect to get a photo of this species and I was amazed when I saw this picture.”

Since 1928, there had been no confirmed record of this cat, before it was rediscovered in 1992 in Sarawak.

It is currently considered to be one of the world’s least known cat species, and is listed as endangered.

“In addition our record is the most northern record of this species, which is endemic to Borneo.”

Specialised climber

“Also the records of the flat-headed cat are very special as well, because just a few camera-trapping pictures of this species exist,” explains Mr Wilting.

“The flat-headed cat is a highly specialised cat, restricted to lowland forests and wetlands, those areas which have the highest destruction rates in Asia.

“This was also the reason why we changed the classification in the red list in 2008 from vulnerable to endangered, which puts this species in the same category as the tiger.

“The marbled cat is presumably mainly arboreal and therefore it is much harder to get this species photographed with the ground-based cameras.”

The marbled cat looks much like a miniature clouded leopard, with a cloud-like spot pattern and long tail.

“We have encountered this species twice during our night surveys in Deramakot and once we even observed it climbing headfirst down the tree-trunk.

“These cats have really amazing climbing skills.”

Mr Wilting says that finding all five Bornean cat species in one area suggests that Dermakot Forest Reserve is home to a particularly high diversity of animals, especially as Borneo is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world.

It also suggests that even commercially used forests, as long as they are managed sustainably, may harbour threatened cat species and therefore contribute to their conservation, he says.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2010/02/10 09:12:29 GMT


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Ohio zoo staff in UAE to further sand cat breeding program

Cute, but no cuddly kitty

Tom Duralia

Last Updated: October 18. 2009 7:12PM UAE / October 18. 2009 3:12PM GMT

The sand cat, an animal so stealthy it is rarely seen, looks as if it is made to comfort and be comforted; a cat for the lap, not the extremes of a lonely desert. Even its claws are dull.

But dhubs and vipers know better.

First of all, it is unlikely that a dhub lizard finds anything other than another spiny-tail remotely cute. Secondly, the fluffy sand cat, forged on the anvil of desolation, as it were, eats them for breakfast.

Despite a superficial similarity to its domestic cousins, the broad-faced sand cat avoids human contact and is a master at shunning and escaping the attentions of the wider world.

Its extremely furry feet a dense mat of long, wavy hairs sprouting from the underside that almost obscures the foot pads, so suited for movement on the sands and ambushing prey leave tracks that are at best ambiguous and frequently non-existent, while its light sandy-coloured coat is lost against the desert background.

How about spotting one at a water hole? Forget it. The self-reliant sand cat gets all the moisture it needs from the fluid content of its prey.

Stumbling upon one almost never happens. It is a nocturnal cat that burrows and sleeps out of sight during the day. When researchers try to locate one at night by shining spotlights across the sands, hoping to catch the retinal reflections, well, the sand cat simply lowers its eyelids.

In short, in the UAE, as within most of their range, sand cats are rarely spotted by anyone, anywhere, ever.

Like the sand cat, Peter Cunningham, an ecologist, has an abiding interest in spiny-tailed lizards and a thirst for desert solitude, which he seeks out when others of his species have beaten a hasty retreat.

“Most think it is crazy,” he says, “[but] I like to go out in the desert in the summer. There’s nobody else there, and you can see things that you otherwise or normally don’t see, especially reptile-wise.”

Late one morning in July 2001, Mr Cunningham was northeast of Al Ain, busy with the niceties of dhub burrow description, moving from one to the next, painstakingly assessing orientation, size of openings, distances between and sub-surface temperatures.

To get a better view, he headed towards a rise, a calcrete outcrop amid the gravel flats and sand dunes, and caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Impossibly, it was a sand cat.

“It was quite a shock,” he recalls. “I didn’t expect it, of course; I was focusing on dhubs at the time.”

So, in all probability, was the sand cat. Uncomfortably close at about five metres, the animal retreated a short distance but, instead of fleeing, stopped and studied the intruder.

“I was watching this cat and it was watching me,” Mr Cunningham says. “It seemed unwilling to run away, but then the area was surrounded by open sand and he was in the best place to hide or avoid me at the time.”

The pair spent a magical minute in communion, “the cat probably thinking, ‘A human out at midday? Must be a crazy scientist’”, before disappearing into some cavity in a rocky outcrop.

Mr Cunningham, 44, now working out of the King Khalid Wildlife Research Centre in Saudi Arabia, never saw the cat again, but when he returned to civilisation he discovered his encounter was the first confirmed sighting of a live sand cat in the UAE.

There had been anecdotal reports, a few records of dead animals and some sand cats had shown up in the pet souks, though no one could say exactly where they had come from.

“Everybody said it was ‘the sand towards the south’,” says Mr Cunningham, perhaps the Liwa area, or Umm Al Zamool, the presumed favoured habitat, but nothing specific.

His subsequent discovery of spiny-tail lizard remains strewn about the den entrance was also a bit of a puzzle. The sand cat is supposedly strictly nocturnal, at least when not disturbed, while the dhub is only active during the day.

A wild sand cat caught in a fence in Saudi Arabia, where the National Wildlife Research Centre has recorded a decline in numbers. Courtesy Moayyad Sher Shah

Maybe, speculated Mr Cunningham, there could be some overlap in the summer when the lizards might still be out at dusk or, perhaps, the sand cat gets them from the burrow. “Nobody has actually seen it in action,” he says, though dhub remains have also been recorded in the faeces of sand cats in Israel.

Dhubs aside, the sand cat’s menu is most likely to feature insects, rodents and small lizards. More famously, though, one of the animals was observed successfully taking on and eating a sand viper in northern Africa.

The cat was apparently so engrossed in the process, says Mr Cunningham, that it paid no heed to the nearby onlookers and, once it had dispatched the snake, tucked in to its hard-earned meal.

Usually, the sand cat is likely to bat its prey silly with those cute paws before delivering the coup de grâce of a killing bite, but it is the animal’s unusually and wonderfully wide head and well-spaced ears that may be the real means for bringing in its sometimes subterranean meals.

That broad head houses ear architecture that differs significantly from that of other small cats, allowing it to hear sounds not only at greater distances but also at a greater range of frequencies, meaning that a gerbil’s “ahem” and the scrape of a sand skink will not go unnoticed.

At just 27, Moayyad Sher Shah is one of the handful of people in the world who can boast more than one wild sand cat experience.

A field researcher with the National Wildlife Research Centre (NWRC) in the Saudi city of Taif, he has been conducting seasonal carnivore trapping in the protected areas of central Saudi Arabia since 2001 and during that time has trapped and released 56 sand cats.

While that may seem a high number for a supposed phantom, Mr Sher Shah has nevertheless documented a precipitous drop in numbers in the past few years. This year, he has not seen any and the year before he caught only a handful.

The culprits, in the estimation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists the sand cat as “near threatened”, are the degradation and loss of habitat and the concomitant reduction in prey.

Mr Sher Shah suspects the situation is the same in the UAE, and Mr Cunningham agrees. Sand cats “don’t like any activity or disturbance and they seem to move away from human settlements; now that people are going in and creating these camel farms all over the show with lots of activity, and all those in the dunes, that’s quite disturbing to the sand cats. They would move away from those areas,” he says.

And they are capable of moving great distances, says Mr Sher Shah, who has played a lead role in ecological studies of the sand cat initiated by the NWRC in 2004.

Tracking made possible by radio collars revealed that cats regularly travelled five or six kilometres a night in search of prey, and doubled that distance when hunting over degraded or over-grazed areas. The home ranges of seven collared cats came in between 20 and 51 square kilometres.

Mr Sher Shah discovered that in the heat of summer, sand cats rest in dens during the day, but will not usually return to the same den or burrow two days in a row. They dig their simple dens quickly and efficiently, but in winter they tend to lie under a bush or other available shade rather than retreating underground.

Mr Sher Shah and Mr Cunningham both believe the reason so few have been sighted in the UAE is partly because no one has looked seriously, but also because of a naturally low density. The numbers are likely to get lower as habitats are disturbed, combined with the remoteness of their preferred ranges and their penchant for secrecy.

While chances of seeing the sand cat in the wild are practically nil, you would be hard-pressed to miss them at the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, where the population of 32 practically equals the total number of captive sand cats in the whole of North America.

And, if all goes according to plan and Farshid Mehrdadfar, the park’s manager of animal collections, has his fingers crossed they may eclipse that total within the next few months.

For the past two weeks, researchers affiliated with the Cincinnati Zoo have been on site at the park, consummating, in more ways than one, a collaborative project concerning the use of assisted reproductive technologies in captive sand cats.

According to one of the principal researchers, Dr Jason Herrick, an assistant professor in veterinary biosciences at the University of Illinois and a collaborator with the Cincinnati Zoo research team since 2004, the goal is to use techniques such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer to help manage and enrich the genetic variability in captive sand cat populations.

“These techniques will allow us to produce offspring in pairs that cannot, or will not, breed naturally,” he says. “Similarly, we can transport frozen sperm and/or embryos between different zoos, or different countries, without having to transport the animals themselves.”

Recently, Dr Herrick and Dr William Swanson, the director of research at the Cincinnati Zoo, completed a two-year study of captive sand cats that involved characterising their basic reproductive traits and developing robust methods for sperm cryopreservation and in vitro fertilisation. The obvious next step, though not a small one, was to test those methods by attempting to produce some kittens.

Last week in Al Ain, says Mr Mehrdadfar, fresh sperm and eggs collected from carefully selected cats were combined, in vitro, to produce sand cat embryos. The embryos were then transferred into four host cats that had recorded successful pregnancies in the past, with other embryos frozen for later use with captive cats in the US.

“If one of these cats goes through pregnancy and pops out kittens I’m going to be dancing in the square,” says Mr Mehrdadfar. Even if he is denied his dance, they will persevere with their commitment to the project and the species: “We’re not going to just stop and shy away.”

This, he says, “is the very first time this has been done”, and the techniques they are developing hold promise not only for inter-zoo gene transfers, but also the potential for harvesting gametes directly from wild populations without having to take the animals into a captive setting.

Assisted reproductive technologies might also help get around the thorny problem of mate selection when computer and committee suggestions go unheeded by the felines involved.

Captive populations, explains Dr Herrick, “are managed to maintain genetic diversity, which may not go well with the animal’s preferences in a mate.

“Just because the male is genetically valuable and mating would be great for the population doesn’t necessarily mean the female is going to think he is the sand cat version of Brad Pitt.”

* The National


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Scottish laird wants European wildcats, wolves on his estate

Wolves may make a Highland comeback in laird’s reserve plan to apply for zoo licence

Published Date: 19 December 2009


WOLVES, not seen in the wild in Scotland for hundreds of years, could be ready for a comeback on a Highland estate.

The Alladale Estate near Ardgay in Sutherland has announced it is to seek a zoo licence within the next two months so it can let the animals roam in a wilderness reserve. It is the latest move by estate owner Paul Lister, who plans to release a series of wild animals in enclosures on the estate.

Reserve manager Hugh Fullerton-Smith announced his intention to apply to Highland Council for the licence in an advert in a local paper.

European elk and wild boar are already housed in enclosures on the 23,000-acre estate. If the licence is granted, they will be joined by eight European wildcats and three European wolves.

Both Mr Lister and Mr Fullerton-Smith were unavailable for comment yesterday.

Mr Lister, son of Noel Lister, the co-founder of the MFI furniture chain, bought Alladale in 2003 and had indicated his intention of introducing Scotland’s “big five” to the area – grey wolves, brown bear, lynx, boar and bison.

Two years ago, the estate gained a Dangerous Wild Animal Licence to keep elk and wild boar in specially constructed enclosures.

In application papers sent to the council, Mr Fullerton-Smith said: “The Alladale Wilderness Reserve facility will be unlike any present conventional UK zoo, both in types of enclosures it uses and the way in which only a limited number will view the animals.”

The animals will be housed in three separate, fenced areas complete with shelters and service buildings. The wolves will be fed on a range of natural carcasses and game off-cuts, and the reserve will be surrounded by a 37-mile electric fence.

Only guests staying at Alladale will be allowed on to the reserve. The maximum daily number of visitors will be 35, although school parties are expected to increase that to about 70 on some days.

A public consultation will be carried out. Mr Lister

says the reserve would create 75 to 100 jobs. He believes Alladale could benefit from the eco-tourism market.

Dave Morris of Ramblers Scotland said: “We expect to oppose the issue of this zoo licence. Approving it would prevent people exercising their statutory rights of access over a large area of land.”


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Pallas cats find temporary home at Virginia Zoo

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mill Mountain Zoo welcomes feisty felines
By Kevin Kittredge

Chin-Li was shy.

Alexey was cranky.

“If you want to breed, you’re going to have to be a little nicer,” advised Lisa Uhl, Mill Mountain Zoo’s public relations manager.

Say hello to the two newest cats at Mill Mountain Zoo. Chin-Li and Alexey are Pallas cats. They look quite a bit like house cats, with more fluff.

If the animals seemed a little overwhelmed by their surroundings last week, well, they had reason. The 7-year-old cats arrived here recently from the Denver Zoo, which is undergoing renovation, said Dave Orndorff, Mill Mountain Zoo director and general curator. They are expected to breed here as well — assuming Alexey gets over his attitude.

From the zoo’s off-exhibit holding area, where they will remain until the zoo completes the cats’ new exhibit space in the spring, Alexey glared at a photographer Friday morning. He bared his teeth. He made a variety of sounds, some distinctly catlike, others not so much. The mating call of a Pallas cat is said to resemble a cross between a dog barking and the hoot of an owl.

“They have some very bizarre vocalizations,” Orndorff said.

Chin-Li, meanwhile, stayed mostly in her box, peeking out with one eye from time to time. Despite her shyness, she can take care of herself. When Alexey tried to come in, she swatted him away.

Pallas cats are named after German naturalist Peter Pallas, who discovered them in 1776. Also known as manuls and steppe cats, they are native to central Asia, and live in high altitudes on a diet of small rodents and birds. They were once thought to be the ancestors of Persian cats, which they resemble, but that is not true, Orndorff said.

The cats were long hunted for their fur, but have protected status now in most of their natural habitat. International trade of their fur has largely ceased, according to various sources, including, an international group of cat specialists.

The cats are considered threatened, but not endangered, Orndorff said.

There are only 53 Pallas cats in North America, however, and only five breeding pairs, Orndorff said. Alexey and Chin-Li have produced kittens together in the past.

The cats arrive at a time when the zoo’s cat population has suffered losses. Ruby the tiger, perhaps the zoo’s best-known inhabitant, died in 2006, and Natasha, a snow leopard, died this week. Both animals lived long lives and died of natural causes.

Despite the resemblance of Pallas cats to house cats, they aren’t very cuddly. Orndorff said the cats can be very aggressive.

“I just want to go in there and feel their fur,” said Uhl, watching the new cats in their cage. But she added, “That’s probably not a good idea.”


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Pallas cat, other animal deaths prompt Topeka Zoo criticism

Animal deaths prompt criticism of Topeka Zoo

By Associated Press
Posted on Fri, Oct. 23, 2009

TOPEKA — Two groups investigating the deaths of several animals at the Topeka Zoo criticized zoo officials for lax veterinary care and poor record-keeping.

A Sept. 28 inspection report cited the zoo for several noncompliance issues related to the death of seven animals from January 2007 through July 2008. That investigation was followed an August report by the USDA that cited the zoo for several noncompliance issues.

Among other problems, investigators found that two animals died after being infested with maggots.

Also Wednesday, a separate review by Kansas State University veterinarians discussed some of the animal deaths including the 2006 death of a hippopotamus, which was left in 108-degree water.

Zoo director Mike Coker said the facility implemented new policies on animal care record-keeping that he thinks will alleviate problems noted by the USDA.

“It’s important to have as complete a picture as possible,” he said. “We’re just reminding our folks to be more detailed, document everything.”

The two critical reports coming so soon after the USDA report in August prompted City Council member John Alcala to question the competence of zoo officials.

“There are serious issues happening out there, and they need to be addressed,” he said. “Things are getting let go.”

The USDA inspection on Sept. 28 found noncompliance related to the deaths of seven animals — a Pallas cat, a rabbit, an antelope, a mouse deer and three bats — from January 2007 through July 2008.

The Pallas cat died in January 2008 after being ill for several days. A necropsy found it had died from a maggot infestation. The report noted the lack of treatment.

“Medical records do not indicate that the animal was assessed by a veterinarian or that any veterinary care was provided for this animal,” the report reads.

Coker said the animal care staff followed procedures by recording the cat’s declining health. But when the information was given to a veterinarian, no diagnosis was made. Coker said he wasn’t sure why.

The report found that many of the animals’ death were not properly documented.

Coker said he has instructed the zoo staff to keep more detailed reports of animal care. He is also writing weekly reports to the USDA detailing issues involving the animals and zoo activities.


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