Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cloud Leopards to Rise Again?

Timothy Ferry with a nifty piece in Taiwan Review on the prospects for reviving Taiwan's Cloud Leopard population.
The world's largest global environmental network, the UN-affiliated International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), harbors not even these doubts. Kristin Nowell, co-founder of the US-based nonprofit agency Cat Action Treasury and one of the IUCN's evaluators for the clouded leopard species report, writes in the 2008 report, "The clouded leopard is extinct on the island of Taiwan."

Disappointed by the failure of his four-year study to find any sign of the clouded leopard in Taiwan, Chiang has shifted gears, focusing on the possibility of reintroducing this mysterious creature.

Reintroduction means placing individuals of a locally extinct species in an area of their former habitat. It may involve trans-locating wild animals from areas where they still thrive to the areas they are currently absent from, such as the program that reintroduced wolves caught in Canada to areas of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. A reintroduction program could also involve freeing captive-bred animals of a species in their former habitat, as with the breeding and release of California condors in southern California and the Grand Canyon in the United States, and Baja California in Mexico.

Chiang offers a number of reasons for reintroducing clouded leopards to Taiwan, the foremost of which is re-establishing biodiversity. Formosan black bears occupy the top position in the food web, but 90 percent of their diet consists of plant matter, along with carrion and the occasional unlucky deer. Clouded leopards, however, eat meat exclusively, preying on muntjac, macaques, serows and even sambar deer, making them a top carnivore.

Chiang says that the disappearance of a top carnivore such as the clouded leopard may result in a host of negative consequences, or "cascade effects," rippling through the ecosystem. Prey species such as sambar deer, wild hogs and macaques may overpopulate their habitats, a big change in Taiwan where only recently these species faced threats of extinction. Rebounding herbivore populations could lead to overbrowsing of the forest undergrowth, stripping habitats vital to many bird species and ultimately devastating forest ecosystems. Chiang reports there is "some very clean understory" already in the area surveyed for his study.

In the absence of a top carnivore, smaller mesopredators--medium-sized predators--such as yellow-throated martens and Siberian weasels are freed from subsequent competition and even predation, Chiang says. He notes that sightings of yellow-throated martens are increasing dramatically, even as high up as the weather station atop Jade Mountain, Taiwan's highest peak. Too many small predators will overhunt forest rodents and ground- dwelling birds, leading to further imbalances, he says. "We have to maintain a well-balanced food web," Chiang says, adding that clouded leopards would effectively manage both issues of too many herbivores and medium-sized predators.

A great article, should be read in its entirety.

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English Teacher Guy said...

my favorite quote:"A forest with clouded leopards and a forest without clouded leopards mean something different. A forest without clouded leopards is ... dead."

Sean Reilly said...

It was a beautiful creature and a fascinating article. I especially like when he said, "A forest with clouded leopards and a forest without clouded leopards mean something different. A forest without clouded leopards is ... dead."

He fails to mention what I feel is the main point about having carnivores in an ecosystem - they tend to make the herbivore populations healthier by culling the weak and injured members of the herbivore populations.

I have also read that while Asian mainland and Formosan populations were the same species, the Formosan clouded leopard was considered a sub-species characterized by having a slightly shorter tail, so that while it would be incredible to know that we once again have leopards in the forests, they wouldn't be a genuine replacement for the ones that were cynically hunted to extinction.

I guess it's kind of like the present government in that respect - we still have one, but it doesn't truly represent the local population the way it once did.