Date:October 21, 2020

The Formosan Clouded Leopard, Thought To Be Extinct For Over 30 Years Now, Was Spotted In Taiwan

Did you know that our planet is currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction of animals, plants, and species? It’s actually going 1,000 to 10,000 times of the normal rate. So you could imagine how exciting it was when the thought to be extinct Taiwanese Formosan Clouded Leopard suddenly appeared after last being spotted in 1983.

If an animal is no longer observed by humans, has it gone extinct? Such is typically the case, as it was for the Formosan clouded leopard. Since the 13th century, these leopards have been around. Indigenous people would bring their fur to trade at the markets of port cities like Tainan. However, Japanese anthropologist Torii Ryūzō is the only recorded non-indigenous person ever having seen such a leopard in 1990.

Image credits: One Earth

Clouded leopards were known to historically exist on the island of Taiwan according to records dating from the 13th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a thriving trade in clouded leopard pelts being brought from Taiwan’s mountainous interior. Today, however, clouded leopards are widely considered to be extinct on the island. Despite this consensus, unconfirmed rumors of sightings persist and some people still believe that clouded leopards may have been able to cling to existence in Taiwan’s rugged wilderness areas. With new wildlife protection laws, many of Taiwan’s large mammals are now recovering after years of overhunting and habitat destruction.

This photograph of a Taiwanese indigenous man, wearing what is thought to be a Formosan clouded leopard pelt, was taken by Japanese anthropologist Torii Ryūzō around 1900

Today there is renewed interest in the status of the clouded leopard in Taiwan, commonly known as the Formosan clouded leopard although DNA studies indicate it is genetically the same as the mainland species, Neofelis Nebulosa. Researcher Po-Jen Chiang from the National Taiwan University and his team conducted an exhaustive study from 2001-2004 looking for signs of clouded leopards and surveying the wildlife in the Dawu Mountain wilderness. The study provided no evidence of clouded leopards, but documented increasing amounts of other wildlife such as deer, wild pigs, monkeys, and small carnivores.

Because of increased wildlife protection in Taiwan and rebounding populations of potential clouded leopard prey, scientists are now exploring the idea of a reintroduction program for the clouded leopard on Taiwan. This idea is highly controversial since it is unclear where source animals would come from, if they could survive reintroduction, if there is enough suitable lowland habitat to support a self-sustaining population, and if the social climate would support re-introduction of a predator.

The Formosan clouded leopard is a subspecies of the rare clouded leopard (pictured). (Photo: Stock Photos from Khaled Azam Noor/Shutterstock)

Professor Liu Chiung-hsi, from the Department of Life Science at the National Taitung University, was not surprised that the Leopard hasn’t been spotted in so long, because it’s vigilant and very difficult to catch. Furthermore, Liu believed that this animal still did exist.

Professor Liu also mentioned that a group of hunters from the indigenous Bunun people admitted killing several of these leopards in the late 1990s. Out of fear, they burned their bodies so they wouldn’t get in trouble from violating the Taiwanese Wildlife Conservation Act.

In 2018 the Leopard was spotted on two separate occasions. Rangers saw more than one cat hunting goats on a cliff, while another group saw one dart past their scooter before quickly climbing up a tree and disappearing. These sightings are extremely significant to the local people, the Leopard is a sacred spirit to the Paiwan tribe. They are now holding meetings to discuss the sightings and how to prevent outsiders from hunting them. They also asked the authorities to stop logging and to end other activities that may harm the land, so the leopards could come out from hiding.

Formosan clouded leopard by Joseph Wolf. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1862 (Photo: Public Domain via Wikicommons)

Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau released its latest Schedule of Protected Wildlife in January. The Formosan clouded leopard is still listed as category I. Chao Ren-fang, a professor at the Institute of Biology at I-Shou University, who was involved in the conservation listing review, said, “It would be a big event to remove the Formosa clouded leopard from the list.” It would require taking into consideration societal perceptions as there could be a backlash from the indigenous community, he added.

The Formosan Clouded Leopard wouldn’t be the first extinct animal that suddenly appeared after years of never being spotted. Just recently in Galápagos National Park, the Fernandina giant tortoise (last seen in 1906), was spotted by rangers. The Tasmanian Tiger from Australia had been spotted after declared extinct in 1936. Sometimes animals just hide for years then pop up out of nowhere.

For more information on the history and possible reintroduction of the Formosan clouded leopard see this article by Timothy Ferry in the Taiwan Review In Search of Taiwan’s Clouded Leopard.