The Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is a medium-sized cat, 55 to 110 cm (2 ft to 3 ft 6 in) long and weighing between 15 and 23 kg (33 to 50 lb). It has a tan or tawny coat, and is distinctively marked with large, irregularly-shaped, dark-edged ellipses which are said to be shaped like clouds, hence both its common and original scientific name. It is found in southern China, the eastern Himalayas, north-east India and mainland Southeast Asia. The Bornean Clouded Leopard, Neofelis diardi, is a separate species found on the Sumatra, Borneo and the Batu Islands. Because of their distinct skull structure, the two species are considered sufficiently different to be the only members of their genus. The Clouded Leopard was a confusion to scientists for a long time because of the appearance and skeleton. It was what seemed to be a cross in between a big cat and a small cat. The scientific name of the genus, Neofelis, originates from neo, which means "new", and felis, which means "small cat", so it literally means new kind of small cat.
In conjunction with the fact that some of its prey lives in trees, the Clouded Leopard is an excellent climber. Short, flexible legs, large paws, and keen claws combine to make it very sure-footed. The Clouded Leopard can possess a tail as long as its body, further aiding in balance. Surprisingly, the cat can climb while hanging upside-down under branches and descend tree trunks head-first.
Preferred habitat is tropical and subtropical forests at altitudes up to about 2,000 meters (6,500 ft); however it is sometimes found in mangrove swamps and grassland. It lives in temperatures from 65 to 120 degrees.
Recent molecular genetic analyses has shown that the subspecies Neofelis diardi, is a separate species of cat, the Bornean Clouded Leopard.
The habits and behaviour of the Clouded Leopard in the wild are virtually unknown to man because of the animal's secretive nature. With a lack of evidence for a pack- or pride-society like that of the Lion, it is assumed that it is a generally solitary creature. Certainly it interacts with other Clouded Leopards while engaged in activities relating to mating and rearing young. While it was once assumed that the Clouded Leopard was active only at night, the cat has now been observed during the day.
Females give birth to a litter of 1 to 5 cubs after a gestation period of about 85 to 93 days. Initially, the young are blind and helpless, much like the young of many other cats. Unlike adults, the kittens' spots are "solid"—completely dark rather than dark rings. The young can see within about 10 days of birth, are active within 5 weeks, and probably become independent at about 10 months of age. The Clouded Leopard reaches sexual maturity at two years of age and females are able to bear one litter each year. Adults in captivity have lived as long as 17 years: in the wild, they have an average 11 year lifespan. This gives hope that the Clouded Leopard will be able to increase its numbers with careful management.
Despite these facts, captive breeding programs met with little success in their early stages, largely because the females were frequently killed by aggressive males; largely due to ignorance of courtship activity among these cats in the wild. Normally, the Clouded Leopard is not aggressive. Experience has taught keepers that carefully selected pairs of Clouded Leopards introduced and given opportunities to bond often breed successfully.
Carefully regulated introductions between prospective mating pairs and breeding programmes that take into account the requirements for enriched enclosures with adequate space to permit climbing, provide and stimulate natural behaviour, remove sources of exposure and minimise stress combined with a feeding programme that fulfills the proper dietary requirements have proven more successful in recent years. Cats born in captivity may one day supplement and bolster threatened populations in the wild.
Because the Clouded Leopard's habits make it difficult to study, reliable estimates of its population do not exist. The World Conservation Union estimates that fewer than 10,000 individuals exist, and warns that the population is declining. Habitat loss due to widespread deforestation and hunting for use in Chinese medicinal preparations are thought to be causing populations of the Clouded Leopard to decline. Only six Clouded Leopards have ever been radio collared and their territorial movements monitored and recorded by scientists using radio telemetry. All of these cats were studied within Thailand. Almost all that is known of the Clouded Leopard today comes from studies of the cats in captivity. Apart from anecdotal accounts very little is known of the Clouded Leopard's natural history, ecology and behaviour in the wild throughout its range.
The World Conservation Union, the organization that maintains the global Red List of endangered species, lists the Clouded Leopard as Vulnerable. In addition, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, lists the Clouded Leopard as an Appendix I species, meaning that international trade in Clouded Leopards is banned. The United States also lists the Clouded Leopard under the Endangered Species Act, further prohibiting trade in the animals or any parts or products made from them in the United States. In the countries of its native range, hunting of the Clouded Leopard is prohibited; however, these bans are poorly enforced.