On the afternoon of November 6, while traveling through Deramakot Forest Reserve in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, photographer Michael Gordon came across a sight he was not expecting: a Sunda clouded leopard mother with her cubs.
Clouded leopards are known to use logging roads to travel, as the roads are easier to traverse than dense tropical forest underbrush. Still, the sighting was so unexpected that Gordon wasn’t at first sure what he was seeing.
“When I first saw the clouded leopards from a distance I thought it was just some macaques on the road,” he told Mongabay. “Once I realized that it was actually three clouded leopards I stopped the car right away. I had my camera close by, but with only a 15mm macro lens attached. I wasn’t sure whether to just enjoy the moment or go into the boot of the car and change lenses. I figured I would regret it badly if I didn’t record it.”
Once he’d changed the lens, Gordon set the camera down on the front of his car and placed the lens between his feet to try and give the camera some stability. “The mother looked straight at me for a while, and once she must have deemed me safe, the cubs followed her across the road,” he said.
You can watch the resulting footage here:
The Sunda clouded leopard, found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, is such a rare and elusive big cat that it’s traditionally been rather difficult to study, never mind casually sight while driving through the forest.
It was only in 2006 that DNA analysis was at last able to establish the Sunda clouded leopard as its own species, Neofelis diardi, distinct from its mainland cousin, Neofelis nebulosa. (Though the two species look and behave remarkably similar, they actually diverged from their common ancestor over a million years ago and are not any more genetically similar to each other than they are to any of the other big cat species.)
The advent of modern conservation technologies like camera traps have helped scientists to gain a better understanding of Sunda clouded leopard populations and behaviors, but even still, some researchers who focus on the species have never seen one of the cats in the wild, or only rarely encountered them.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Gordon was able to capture the footage of a mother clouded leopard with her cubs. “I have never seen a mother with cubs before and only once had a glimpse of a clouded leopard in the daylight,” Gordon told Mongabay. “This was definitely a rare sighting.”
The Sunda clouded leopard is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species based on a 2015 assessment that found that ongoing threats such as forest loss, habitat degradation, and poaching have likely led to a population decline of 30 percent or more over the past two decades. It is believed that the total Sunda clouded leopard population is currently less than 10,000 individuals.
While scientists have determined that the species exists at relatively low population densities in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, the Sunda clouded leopard is a fairly adaptable creature, “found in a range of forest types, elevations and levels of disturbance,” the IUCN reports. However, despite its ability to adjust to different habitats, the Sunda clouded leopard is dependent on forests, and does not seem capable of thriving on oil palm plantations. That presents quite a threat to the species’ survival — it’s been estimated that there are only about 700 Sunda clouded leopards left in the wild in Sabah, for instance, mostly due to the conversion of their habitat to oil palm monocultures.
“The forests of Borneo and Sumatra are undergoing some of the world’s highest deforestation rates, largely as the result of the expansion of oil palm plantations, and thus such development and consequent loss of habitat, coupled with the species’ apparent low population size, probably constitute the greatest threat to this species,” according to the IUCN’s assessment.
In addition to habitat destruction, hunting is a serious threat to the big cats. Surveys released by WWF and TRAFFIC earlier this month found that clouded leopards are among the top 10 species targeted for the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle region.
But a sighting of clouded leopards in a selectively logged forest like Deramakot may not be as unusual as it would seem. Recent research found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, mammal populations in Malaysian Borneo’s logged tropical forests are actually higher than in old-growth forests where hunting is a concern. “What was more surprising was that this pattern was so widespread across the mammal species we looked at, including some of those that partly make their living in the treetops, like orangutans and clouded leopards,” Oliver Wearn of the Zoological Society of London, who led the research, told Mongabay in August.
Michael Gordon has lived in Sabah for five years now, and has been working to promote ecotourism in the Dermakot Forest Reserve, an FSC-certified forest landscape. “In a sustainably logged forest like Deramakot there does seem to be higher mammal density than primary forests, and, from a tourism perspective, with the well-maintained roads, it’s actually easier to go out and find them,” he said. “With the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak both pledging to make all logging FSC certified and sustainable, it should ensure some of Borneo’s iconic species do have a future without just being confined to national parks.”
Of course, not everyone is as thrilled by a clouded leopard sighting as Gordon was. Take, for instance, the gibbons and monkeys who were caught on camera earlier this year teaming up to “predator mob” a Sunda clouded leopard they discovered in their midst.