Leopards found extinct in Taiwan as public begins to growl

A team of zoologists have been looking for the Formosan clouded leopard, indigenous to Taiwan, for 13 years. Last week they announced it was extinct.

The news that the clouded leopards that once prowled the lowlands of Taiwan have become extinct here has prompted expressions of concern among an increasingly conservationist public.

The Formosan clouded leopard, a subspecies of large cats, probably died out here some 100 years ago, Taiwan university researchers determined after a four-year study found no photos, fur, or paw prints in a preserve considered their most likely home.

The news has led many Taiwanese to question the side-effects of the island’s economic development. In turn, animal advocates say this examination has fueled conservation movements.  

“A lot of people have said they are disappointed and find our discovery quite regrettable,” says Kurtis Pei, a study leader from National Pingtung University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Wildlife Conservation. “Some say they hope not just to feel regret but to do something to save other animals.”

Mr. Pei and five other researchers set up cameras and catnip-baited hair traps, and trolled the jungle for the Formosan clouded leopards from 2000 to 2004, spending the time since then to analyze data in an area that was later made impassable by typhoons. The team took 16,000 photos in 400 spots, Pei says. They also looked for paw prints and fur. Still, despite their efforts, they found no trace of the meter-long cats named for their large cloudlike spots.

“There hasn’t been any evidence of their continued existence,” he says. 

The results announced last week confirm a 1985 study that also found no traces of the animal, which is indigenous to Taiwan. Pei says urbanization, farming, poaching, and industry pushed the species from its native lowland hills into poorer habitat in the mountains. The last piece of evidence of their existence here was a picture in a Japanese colonist’s diary dated 1910.

Researchers had held out hope that the species, which is still found in other parts of Asia, could still exist here, too.

The main species of clouded leopards is considered vulnerable to extinction in the Himalayas. The Bornean clouded leopard, another species, lives on Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia and is also considered vulnerable.

As much of Taiwan’s public places priority in urban economic successes, few saw animals as relevant to their lives until this news, activists in Taipei say. 

“Awareness of conservation is better than before but still lacking,” says Chu Tseng-hung, executive director of the conservationist group Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan. Reaction often comes down to exposure, he adds. “With clouded leopards, if you have never seen one, you won’t have any reaction now,” he says. 

Activists hope the clouded leopard case will be an incentive to help save other species here.

Wild animals such as the leopard and Formosan black bear are now threatened by poaching plus development that dominates all but the east coast and high interior mountains. Taiwan, at 634 people per square kilometer, has one of the world’s densest populations. (It’s about the size of the state of Maryland, but has a population of 23 million.) Leopard cats number about 500 and the bears closer to 1,000. 

Whether a groundswell of people will be able to save other species depends on whether activists take this opportunity to get the word out, says Sean McCormack, cofounder of the Taiwan SPCA. “When the Taiwanese are aware of issues, they get behind them 100 percent,” he says. 

The clouded leopard research team may need support for reintroducing clouded leopards by bringing in a starter population from elsewhere in Asia, Pei says. He hopes to stir up more popular enthusiasm, as the government would need to sign off as well. “Just for scholars to discuss the issue isn’t that helpful,” Pei says.

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