Reintroducing the Clouded Leopard to Taiwan

Most people think of Taiwan in terms of images of computer chips, petrochemical factories, and smokestacks. Many don’t seem to know that the Belgium-sized island off China that juts out of the sea between Japan and The Philippines is half covered in forest on its mountainous spine.

More than 100 of those mountains reach 3,000-plus meters in height, and up until somewhere between 70 and 30 years ago, clouded leopards, named for their spotted coats, prowled those mountain jungles, devouring macaques and muntjacs as the top predator of the ecosystem. They have roamed Asian forests from Indonesia to the Himalayas. But they are gone in Taiwan. Now there is a plan to bring them back if the government, the academics and the indigenous community members can agree on the plan. Can and should it be done?

Taiwanese scientist Po-Jen Chiang wrote his doctoral dissertation about the island’s clouded leopard, which some think was a unique sub-species called Neofelis nebulosa brachyura. This sub-species is said to have had a much shorter tail than the Mainland (Neofelis nebulosa) and Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) sub-species, but Taiwanese conservationist Dr. Kurtis Pei recently told me that observation was a mistake. It is a damaged pelt, not a naturally short tail.

In the late 1800s, British biologist and official Robert Swinhoe saw clouded leopard skins for sale in a market back when Taiwan was known as Formosa. Some, like myself, would argue there was probably not much difference between the Mainland clouded leopard and Taiwan’s and that the potential reintroduction program should move forward, while others question whether the island was ever even home to the cat at all. Some would even ask “what is a species” anyway? Do we even really know what we’re talking about with this term?

The World Wildlife Fund has no issue with “reintroducing” Bengal tigers from India “back” into Cambodia where the Indochinese sub-species occurred up until a decade ago. The issue about the tigers being different sub-species is hardly ever raised in this case, which is estimated to cost anywhere from US$25-40 million. Species, sub-species, nebulosa, brachyura—maybe it’s all just semantics. Taiwan has a chance to get its top predator back, and the island should pounce on the opportunity.

My opinion, as well as that of Pei’s and Chiang’s, is that the clouded leopard certainly existed in Taiwan, and that it should be reintroduced using Neofelis nebulosa. In my recent meeting with Pei in Taipei, I learned that a French anthropologist is currently conducting ethnographic interviews with the Rukai and Paiwan tribes of southern Taiwan, and one of the things she’s asking about is clouded leopards. The Rukai and Paiwan tribes of old have legends about these “big cats” and some of them even have antique clouded leopard pelts hanging on the walls of their homes. Did their great-great grandfathers really travel from Pintung and Taitung counties all the way to Taipei a century ago and purchase them at the market—imported from China where they still occur—like the skeptics think? This sounds highly dubious.

No one knows for sure how many old pelts are hanging in the indigenous tribal people’s homes in Taiwan, but one thing is for sure, and that is the Japanese purchased many of them from the tribal chiefs and brought them back to Japan, where, according to Pei, some are on display in a museum in Osaka.

The next question is where would the clouded leopards come from? The Aspinall Foundation in the UK has 27 clouded leopards (nebulosa) that they say are ready to be re-wilded. The Aspinall Foundation has had great success in reintroducing primates and other species back into the wilds of Africa and Asia from their captive breeding programs in the UK. Aspinall Director Neil Spooner told me in an email that his foundation is eager to move forward with Taiwan clouded leopard reintroduction program, and a meeting has been set for October in Taipei regarding this issue. In attendance will be Mr. Spooner, Dr. Po-Jen Chiang, other Taiwanese conservationists, members of the indigenous community and the public, and myself. Thailand also has a clouded leopard captive breeding program, and additional animals could potentially come from this source as well.

Dr. Po-Jen Chiang famously quipped, "A forest with clouded leopards and a forest without clouded leopards mean something different. A forest without clouded leopards is...dead." After 13 years and countless camera trap hours of deployment, none were found, and the clouded leopard was officially declared extinct in 2013.

Can wildlife conservation really work in Taiwan? According to Dr. Pei, the answer is a resounding yes. Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) numbers are actually increasing in Taiwan, making this island probably the only place on the planet where that is the case for any pangolin sub-species. Pangolins are the most highly trafficked animal in the world, and they are mercilessly hunted across Asia and Africa for the exotic meat and traditional medicine markets of Vietnam and China. It took us nearly three years to camera trap a single pangolin in Cambodia’s massive Virachey National Park, and we had to hide the photo from the tribal guides and porters for fear that they would return and hunt it.

Both the Chinese pangolin and the Sunda pangolin are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, yet the pangolin thrives in Taiwan today. Asiatic black bear numbers are thought to be increasing up in Taiwan’s mountainous spine, and the island’s leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) numbers are on the rise as well, according to Pei.

Dr. Pei said that when tribal elders are shown photos of clouded leopard pelts, they reply instantly that they recall seeing those pelts in their youths. But is their memory fuzzy? Are they just telling him what he wants to hear? Do they just want to make him happy? He doesn’t know. One thing is for sure, and that is that if the island has the chance to bring the clouded leopard back to its mountains, those mountains and forests would certainly have a new dimension to them.

Mystery and mystique would return, the legends and stories would return, eco-tourism would probably boom. I have spent some time trekking and camping in Taiwan’s gorgeous wilderness canyons, and while I wouldn’t call these forests “dead,” without the clouded leopard they are just pretty pictures. With the clouded leopard prowling, stalking, and lurking in the trees and forest trails, everything changes. The other animals know, the birds know, you know: it’s out there. Hopefully progress is made at the October meeting, and the island will regain its top natural predator.

Gregory McCann is an assistant professor at a Taiwanese university and is the Project Coordinator for the NGO Habitat ID, which has wildlife survey projects in Cambodia and Sumatra. He is also the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. Camera trap photos by author.