The clouded leopard is cat that spends most of its time in trees and lives primarily in the mountainous rain forests of northeastern India, northern Burma, southern Tibet, southern China and Southeast Asia. Rarely seen in the wild, it gets its name from cloud forests it inhabits and the cloud-like markings on its fur. Despite their name they are not closely related to true leopards.

Michael E. Ruane wrote in the Washington Post, “ The clouded leopard is is about the size of a medium-weight dog, with a small head, luminous eyes and long, white whiskers. It has weird black and tan spots that seem to blur into each other, huge paws and an extremely long tail.It is an acrobatic climber and can walk on the underside of tree branches or vertically down a tree trunk, the zoo said. And it has unusually long, sharp teeth that resemble the fangs of a poisonous snake. But the leopards are endangered in the wild and are hunted in Asia for their beautiful pelts. [Source: Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, March 25, 2009]

The clouded leopard is regarded as the smallest of the big cats. In China, the clouded leopard is known as the “mint leopard” because of its markings. In Malaysia its is called the “tree tiger.” Some regard it is a relative of the snow leopard. In reality it is so different from other big cats it occupies its own genus. Clouded leopards were found in China, Nepal and northeast India were described British naturalist Edward Griffiths in 1821and were last big cat to be discovered.

Clouded leopards are one of the most endangered large wild cats. Threatened by loss of habitat and hunting for fur and meat, they only live in old growth forests, a habitat that has been diminished and disrupted by slash and burn agriculture, logging and overgrazing. They are poached for food and pelts and easily caught using a fresh kills as bait. A subspecies native to Taiwan is already probably extinct.

Clouded Leopard Characteristics

Clouded leopards are relatively small and have an elongated, powerfully-built body with short legs. Adults stand about a half to meter (20 inches) at the shoulder and weigh 16 to 23 kilograms (35 to 50 pounds). Their head and body measures 60 to 110 centimeters. The tail is between 22 and 36 centimeters long. Males weigh anywhere from 38 to 90 kilograms (85 to 200 pounds), and females from 28 to 55 kilograms 65 to 130 pounds).

The clouded leopards markings — irregular, cloud-like, black-edged ovals, squares and rosettes on a tawny grey, brownish-yellow or silver background — are the source of the animal’s name. To some the markings look reptilian, sort of like patterns on snake-skin cowboy boot. Because their stripes and rosette-like markings blend in so well with the shadows they are nearly impossible to see in their rain forest habitats. Like the tree-living margay of Central America, clouded leopards have flexible ankle joints that allow them to climb down trees head first and a long, bushy tail that is used for balance.

Clouded leopards have the longest canine teeth, relative to the size of their head, of any cat. The front part of their jaw has been modified to support these very long, widely spaced teeth that are able to penetrate deep into prey and have lead to comparisons with the saber-toothed tigers.

Clouded leopard have long tails and paws with large pads ideal climbing. They can leap from branch to branch, climb trunks and hang from their hind legs and halt falls by applying a single paw to a branch. They can also cling beneath branches with a single paw and run head-first down tree trunks. It has also been said the can use their tails like monkeys.

Clouded Leopard Behavior

clouded leopard range

Clouded leopards are very secretive and information about them is limited. Virtually nothing is known about their social habits, and nearly nothing was known about them in the wild period until Alan Rabinowitz did a survey on them throughout their Asian range. Many stories surround them and several indigenous groups regard them as sacred.

Clouded leopards are solitary and spend much of their time in trees, where they move about with great agility. Clouded leopards are most active a night. They move quietly and stealthily and are good at climbing trees. They catch monkeys or birds on trees, often hiding in trees and ambushing prey by jumping down on them when an animal passes by. They sometimes moves alone along hillcrest following the footsteps of ungulates. They usually hunts wild fowls and medium-size mammals but they may also attack large-size ungulates.

Male clouded leopards are believed to attract mates by climbing on hills or high perches and letting out deep, moaning calls that carry a great distance through the forest. Females are thought to raise their young in ground-level dens, concealed by vegetation, or the hollow of trees. The time when females are in heat varies. Often it is in late autumn or early spring. The gestation period is from 86 to 92 days with the litters varying in size from one to five cubs. The cubs nurse for six to 12 weeks and become independent at about nine months. In captivity clouded leopards sometimes have playful, affectionate relations with their keepers.

Clouded leopards attack their prey secretly and kill their prey with their paws and teeth. They eat monkeys, small-sized deer, wild rabbits, birds,gibbons, pheasants, otters, rats, squirrels, other rodents, orangutans, wild boar, civets, fish, domestic animals, and deer. It is believed that they can hunt both from the ground and from trees, often using a tactic favored by regular leopards — leaping from tree branches onto prey. They are capable of stalking monkeys and bird in the trees. They avoid danger and rest mainly in tree. There have been reports of attacks on small water buffalo but no reported human attacks.

New Species of Clouded Leopard

The cloud leopards of Borneo and Sumatra are slightly darker than mainland species and have smaller and different-shaped cloud-like markings. In 1823, a zoologist described them as a separate series but later the designation was changed to a subspecies, In the later 2000s, DNA analysis found that DNA of clouded leopards from Borneo-Sumatra are is as different from mainland clouded leopards as that of lions and tigers and this the Borneo-Sumatra clouded leopards was declared a new species: the Borneo cloud leopard (or Sunderland cloud leopard).

The World Wildlife Fund said American scientists compared the DNA of the clouded leopard with that of its mainland cousin and determined the two populations diverged some 1.4 million years ago. "Genetic research results clearly indicate that the clouded leopard of Borneo should be considered a separate species," WWF quoted Dr. Stephen O'Brien of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, which carried out the tests, as saying. [Source: AP, March 15, 2007[

The clouded leopard is Borneo's largest predator, has the longest canine teeth relative to its size of any cat, and can grow as large as a small panther. There are estimated to be between 5,000 and 11,000 of these animals left in Borneo's rain forests, which are threatened by logging and are believed to hold many more undiscovered species, WWF said.

Andrew Kitchener, a Scottish scientist who led a study of the markings of the Borneo cloud leopard, told the Times of London that the Borneo leopard has smaller cloud-shaped markings than the mainland cat, a double stripe along the back instead of a single one, more spots within each cloud and a darker coloration. “The moment we started comparing the skins, ot was clear we were comparing two species.”

Residing mainly in trees the Sunderland clouded leopards is rarely seem and few of them are in captivity. In 2010 one was filmed for the first time, AFP reported: The leopard, a healthy-looking animal a metre long (3 feet) and weighing about 40 kilos (90 pounds) was caught on video at night at the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Malaysian Borneo's Sabah state. "What surprised us was that while clouded leopards are very elusive cats, this one was not scared at all," said Azlan Mohamed, a field scientist with University Sabah Malaysia. "Despite our powerful spot lights and the roar of our vehicle's engine, it walked around our vehicle calmly," he told AFP. "It is rare to see the big cat in the wild. These cats are usually shy of humans, it was by chance we caught it on video." [Source: AFP, February 16, 2010]

bornean clouded leopard

Zoo Breeding of Clouded Leopards

In captivity, male clouded leopards have a nasty habit of killing their mates. This makes them difficult to breed in captivity. Young leopards that are put togther generally get along. The easiest way to breed them in captivity is using artificial insemination.

Michael E. Ruane wrote in the Washington Post, “The zoo had a successful breeding program for clouded leopards during the 1980s and early 1990s, but it was halted in 1993 because of fears of inbreeding among related leopards across the country. The program proved difficult to resume. The zoo's animal reproduction expert, JoGayle Howard, said zoos across the United States and in Thailand found that when a male and a female were put together to breed, the larger male often would pounce on the female and kill her with a fatal bite to the back of the neck. [Source: Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, March 25, 2009]

When a female did become pregnant, she often killed her cubs accidentally or intentionally, Howard said. Experimentation eventually suggested that if a male and female were raised together, the male would not kill the female once they reached adulthood and mated, Howard said. "You want to put the male in with the female, pair them up as early as possible," she said. Hannibal and Jao Chu were such a pair. They were imported from Thailand last year, Howard said, and reached puberty together. Lang said experts believed the two mated at the center but were not certain. Later, curators realized Jao Chu looked as if she might be pregnant.

She was placed on a pregnancy watch when she turned down her usual snack of two dead mice. A few days later she vanished from the area of her enclosure that is monitored by video cameras, and about 1:30 a.m., she was spotted in a corner with the two cubs. The leopard’s keeper Ken Lang was worried because the cubs were on a concrete floor and could become chilled. He wanted to get them into the warm incubator as soon as possible. He said he gathered other curators and, armed with a net, three people reentered the enclosure, separated the cubs from the mother, who backed off, and gathered up the babies.

The cubs were taken to the center's veterinary hospital, examined and found to be a little cold but in good health. One weighed 258 grams (about half a pound), the other 270 grams. Their sexes could not immediately be determined. They will be raised on formula. Later they appeared robust and squeaked loudly as Lang, in green scrubs and rubber gloves, took their temperatures and bottle fed them. When Lang was finished, he turned out the lights in the room and locked the big steel door, where there was a sign that read: "Quarantine."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2022

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