Rare cat filmed up close in Borneo

Matt Walker BBC Nature 10 Dec 12;

One of the world's most rare and elusive cats, the Sunda clouded leopard of Malaysia, has been filmed up close.

A biologist holidaying in Malaysia has captured unique footage of a young female leopard resting in the forest.

Previously, this top predator has only been filmed fleetingly and at a distance, with the first wild footage to be made public captured in 2010.

The Sunda clouded leopard was only discovered to be a distinct species in 2007.

Experts say the footage is extraordinary, believing it to be the only close-up film of the cat in the wild.

Clouded leopards are the smallest of the so-called big cats, living in southeast Asia.

They are not true leopards, being more distantly related to leopards, snow leopards, lions and tigers than those big cats are to each other.

For many years, experts thought there was a single species of clouded leopard.

Then in 2007, Mr Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany and colleagues discovered there are actually two distinct species.

The clouded leopard of mainland Asia and Taiwan kept the traditional species name Neofelis nebulosa, and the Sunda clouded leopard living on Borneo and Sumatra, was named Neofelis diardi.

Both species are elusive, but the Sunda clouded leopard is rarely sighted or photographed.

In 2010, Mr Wilting and colleagues captured the first wild footage of the cat to be made public, when during a night survey, they encountered a Sunda clouded leopard walking along a road.

Now Dr Jyrki Hokkanen, a keen wildlife videographer, has obtained much more detailed film of the cat.

Dr Hokkanen studied for a doctorate in biology at the University of Leeds, UK, before becoming a scientific visualisation specialist in Finland.

On 2 August this year, he was holidaying at the Danum Valley, within Malaysian Borneo, exploring the forest at night with his wife and a guide, using torches to illuminate any wildlife.

"We saw an unusually big pair of eyes about ten metres ahead," Dr Hokkanen told BBC Nature, describing the encounter. "The eyes pointed at us and did not move and a round face was just about visible in the flashlight."

Dr Hokkanen began to film the animal which then moved through the vegetation and disappeared.

"I knew it had been a cat," he said. "It could not have been anything other than the Sunda clouded leopard."

Dr Hokkanen, his wife and guide continued forward on the trail they were walking, in an attempt to find the animal again.

"Then suddenly an eye shine appeared very low, now on the right hand side. This was not what we expected, since the cat had disappeared to the left. Through my viewfinder I saw a leopard raising up from the undergrowth, where it had been hiding, and looking at us."
Young female

Experts, including Mr Wilting and Andrew Hearn of the Wildlife Conservation Unit at the University of Oxford, UK, have reviewed the footage, which they say is exciting.

Another expert, Fernando Najera, who manages a clouded leopard (N. nebulosa) captive breeding centre in Thailand, said that the cat's size and appearance, including the length of its adult teeth, suggest it is a young female, perhaps 18 months old, rather than a cub.

"The clouded leopard basically just tolerated us, but it also occasionally appeared to be amused by the flickering light, like a kitten," added Dr Hokkanen.

"A couple of times it licked its nose, perhaps to moisten its nostrils, and sniffed the air. A yawn revealed its huge canines, [the] longest in all cats relative to size."

The Sunda clouded leopard faces an uncertain future: it depends on forest yet its habitat on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is being cleared at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world, according to the International Union for the Conservation for Nature (IUCN).

A year earlier in 2011, Dr Hokkanen also managed to film a marbled cat, currently considered to be one of the world's least known cat species, and listed as endangered.

The marbled cat looks much like a miniature clouded leopard, with a cloud-like spot pattern and long tail.