IFAW-run wildlife rehab center in India develops a kindly curriculum to get orphaned big cats back into the wild.
By Vicki Croke
Scared, sick, and tiny, the orphaned clouded leopard cub has made it to safety.
So far, experts don’t know how he was separated from his mother or who took him from the forest. But they do have the experience and resources to give this little 5-pound cub not only a chance at life, but also, eventually, a shot at freedom back in the wild.
Things looked grim on August 13, when the baby, who is estimated to be only a few months old, arrived at the rehabilitation center in Assam, India—which is run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Trust of India. He had already been with other people for at least 10 days before that.
“The animal was very weak, anemic and pot-bellied at the time of admission,” said Dr. Bhaskar Choudhury, head veterinarian at the Wildlife Transit Home. But the cat, with the species’ trademark cloud-shaped black/brown spots on a cream-colored coat, immediately began receiving medical care and proper food. Dr. Choudhury said, “A suitable diet chart has been framed for its health improvement.”
With good care and luck, hopefully his health will continue to improve.
Clouded leopards are extremely mysterious and elusive, but seven of them, including the most recent admission, have landed at The Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) Transit Home in recent years, most from in or around Manas National Park. From these orphans, a successful protocol, which can take about a year, has been established.
In 2009, a set of two male cubs, Runa and Kata, were hand-raised here, and in May of 2010, they became the first rehabbed clouded leopards in India to be radio-collared and released.
This video tells the story of Runa and Kata—radio-collared orphans who made history. Courtesy: Wildlife Trust of India.
In 2010, another pair of cubs came under the center’s care, but the team managed to reunite them with the mother.
Two other cubs—a male and a female— were less than a month old when they were carried off by a man illegally cutting trees in the Manas National Park, and brought to the center in May 2011. They were released a year later.
What may seem odd at first, but actually makes perfect sense, is that the first step in rehabilitation is to try NOT to rehabilitate. The best parent for clouded leopard cubs is a clouded leopard. And in the case of the cubs in 2011, IFAW/WTI staff returned the babies to the area where they were found, hoping to reunite them with their mother. Over a three-day period, the cubs were bottle-fed by day and left alone, monitored by camera traps, at night. The mother never came, and for the health and safety of the babies, they were returned to the Transit Home.
There, they were hand-raised and fed well.
That’s part of the plan for the 5-pound cub, rescued this month, who has some catching up to do. Previous rescues weighed almost 8 pounds each by 4 months and were, by that age, off milk and eating a half a pound of meat a day.
The cubs who come into the center are protected, but the aim is to make them the wild animals they were meant to be.
According to an IFAW blog about clouded leopard rehabilitation, the young cats are “encouraged to test and learn the climbing skills and play-fight for hours on end, excellent habits that will prove vital for their survival in the wild.”
When they’re ready, (in the case of Runa and Kata, this was after six months in the center), clouded leopard rescues can be moved to a transition site in the forest where they are “taught to be wild.” This may require something like eight months (in the wild they might be with their mothers for about 10 months).
During the acclimatization phase of rehabilitation, typically the cubs are taken for walks by their caretakers during the day, and then, at night, for safety, are kept in a big enclosure. Next, they are given freedom even after dark and perhaps moved to a more isolated area of the forest. Keepers spend less time with the maturing and increasingly confident animals. The cats by then easily climb trees and begin to hunt prey. In the past, hair in their feces has indicated to handlers that, on their own, the cats are catching and eating barking deer and jungle fowl, among other animals.
At that point, the clouded leopards are set free. Radio-collars that are expandable may be used to monitor the animals after their release.
There may only be about 10,000 clouded leopards in the wild today and they are considered “vulnerable” in the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
Habitat loss is the biggest threat to these animals who don’t adjust as well as common leopards to life close to humans.
Clouded leopards are fascinating cats. They are the smallest of the big cats, with males weighing in at only about 50 pounds. Compare that with the largest big cat—the tiger— who might be 700 pounds.
But what clouded leopards lack in size they more than make up for in athleticism and weaponry. They are big-headed, with powerful jaws, and “dagger-like” canine teeth that make them look like “scaled-down” saber tooth cats, according to Fiona and Mel Sunquist in “The Wild Cat Book.” In fact, “for its size, this cat has the longest canine teeth of any living felid.”
And with a low center of gravity, long tails for ballast, broad, sharp-clawed paws, and flexible, rotating rear ankles, they can rip up and down trees with speed and agility, and even hang upside down from branches. They are master jungle climbers who are believed, though, to do most of their hunting on the ground.
The cats live from the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal and India through the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Scientists now recognize two separate species—the clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, (the orphaned cub found in Assam is one of these) and the Sunda clouded leopard, Neofelis diardi, found on Sumatra and Borneo.
Scientists determined fairly recently that there are two different clouded leopard species. This video from the World Wildlife Fund Australia shows the darker Sunda clouded leopard. Courtesy: World Wildlife Fund Australia.
Clouded leopards are losing habitat to human encroachment and deforestation. They are hunted for their coats, bones, and teeth. And they are killed in retaliation for livestock deaths. Though there isn’t a clear figure for their population, we do know that numbers are going down.
So, at the wildlife Transit Home in Assam, one, as yet unnamed, orphaned clouded leopard counts. And vets and staffers hope he follows in the footprints of the other orphans who have lived with them for only a short while before being returned to a life in the wild.
Produced by Christen Goguen. Originally appeared on WBUR’s The Wild Life.