A species in danger of extinction: Clouded leopard

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Rahul Ashem
Clouded leopard is a flagship species for the conservation of ecosystem services and habitats as well as to the human environment
Small cat’s population in the wild is unknown in the state. It is due to the extensive fragmentation, degradation and forest conversion in the surrounding ecosystems. Most of the protected areas and parks are facing community conflict because of the establishment of villages, cattle rearing and encroachment. Shifting cultivation and seasonal fires is another reason for the same purposes. It is the right time to understand the value of forest in our daily lives as a raw material source, local employment source as well as the state income source. Forest plays a great role in gathering and releasing the water source and maintains the floral and faunal diversity habitat. It represents the ecosystem services where tiger stand at the apex of that system to form the umbrella species for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Small cats and other herbivore species are the part of trophic niche such as regulation of prey populations and seed dispersal in that habitat. The state is losing the big predators like tigers and leopards in the forested areas. This disrupts the natural balance of wildlife and their surrounding environment. Similarly, removal of small cat’s population can alter prey and other animal densities within that system. It also alters the plant composition by increasing seeds and seedling process which in turn influences the distribution, abundance and competitive interaction within groups of birds, mammals and insects. As a result, there are chances of competition for the limited resources and superior competitors may displace the weaker competitors resulting less diversity through competitive exclusion.
Out of the family Felidae, clouded leopard is the smallest feline. It is also the most talented climbers among the cats. The scientific name of clouded leopard is Neofelis nebulosa, protected under the Indian wildlife protection act, listed in CITES Appendix 1 and IUCN status as vulnerable, rare and population unknown in the wild. The felid is yellowish brown grey elliptical edged with black floating all over the body. These turn into black oval spots on its legs and into blurred rings on its very long tail. The head is spotted with two broad bars on the neck and stripes on its cheek. The back of each ear is black with a grey spot in the middle. The short legs feature a heavy appearance look but it is one of the lithest of all the big cats. It can hang from tree branches by using the hind legs which possess flexible ankle joints that allow the foot to rotate backwards. Unlike other Felidae, it does not leave scats and scrapes along its trails. The cat is arboreal in nature, it ambushes prey from trees and then drags the kill up to the trees to eat. It has the longest canine teeth in proportion to its skull size. It also shelters its young ones in tree hollows. Clouded leopard is strictly prohibited under the CITES rules in term of poaching, trading and selling of meats.
The status of clouded leopard population in the wild is difficult to estimate. It is known that the feline is restricted to Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Sikkim and West Bengal. This region falls within two global biodiversity hotspots, the Himalaya and Indo-Burma, renowned for supporting an astonishing diversity of life alongside an extraordinary diversity of peoples and cultures. In the state, the feline is distributed in different forest types. From the wet temperate forests of Shirui hills (Ukhrul) to the tropical semi evergreen of Jiri and Makru (Tamenglong) and from sub tropical wet hill forests of Kailam (Churachanpur) to the alpine grassland of Bunning (Tamenglong). The animal is a nocturnal hunter, shy, elusive, solitary and seldom seen in the wild. They prey on small species like rodents, porcupines, pangolins, squirrels, slow loris, monkeys, birds and smaller varieties of deer or dependent on the area where they live. As the feline is short in structure, it has powerful legs equipped with rotating rear ankles that allow them to safely down climb in a headfirst posture similar to common squirrel. The feline has sharp eye sight to judge distances and their long tails to maintain balance. Scientifically, clouded leopard hunts most on the ground for easy prey. The feline is also a perfect swimmer. Despite the name clouded leopard, it is not closely related to the common leopards. Though little information is known about the clouded leopard population, the feline is listed as vulnerable species. Rising population and increased human activities in the protected areas lead to shrinkage, fragmentation, deforestation and resource exploitation thereby altering the extent and spatial configuration of their habitats. The conversion of landscape into roads, dams and plantations creating more fragmented forests replace diversity with paltry monocultures. Forest degradation and jhum cultivation practices in the hills are another factor for the loss of feline population in the wild. The development of numerous agricultural fields with the destruction of forest causing the habitat to diminish is another reason. Natural process like dis­ease in­fec­tions and cat­a­strophic events in certain habitats is also a probable cause for the loss of feline populations. The phenomenon of hunting and killing is an old traditional method. The practice of poaching and illegal trading of clouded leopard is another business in the present generation. Un­for­tu­nately, due to their elu­sive na­ture and dense for­est habi­tats, data on the num­bers ac­tu­ally sur­viv­ing in parks are lim­ited and pos­si­bly in­ac­cu­rate. Other small felids like leopard cat, fishing cat, jungle cat, golden cat and marbled cat are facing the same stage of vulnerable race.
The need of the hour is to start monitoring programme cum interviews with the local communities, hunters and related departments. It is important to consult the local villagers the specific occurrence and habitats of clouded leopard, natural history and behavioural observation and also the status on current pressures especially hunting and killing. An ideal way of identification is showing the photograph of clouded leopard to the residents of the locality. However, small carnivore species cannot be surveyed using direct sightings (since they are elusive, rare and nocturnal in nature) or sign such as tracks and scats. Focusing on reducing deforestation and fragmentation in the surrounding areas can be an attempt to increase the population of clouded leopard. Poaching laws have been put in place to stop illegal hunting of these animals. Making wildlife corridors in protected areas and parks is also a factor for saving the beautiful cats.
Collective information on biodiversity including wildlife status, population and community interactions and their contributions to ecosystem development is needed for effective conservation of wildlife management on protected areas. Such collective information is developed through regular monitoring and maintaining records with various scientific methods. It is the right time to provide refuge to the clouded leopard which is a flagship species in danger of extinction.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

Source: The Sangai Expresss

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