Hidden amongst all the doom and gloom that is the state of the world at the moment is the occasional nugget of good news. Today’s comes in the form of a long-thought-extinct leopard being spotted by multiple witnesses alive and well in Taiwan.
The Formosan clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura) is a subspecies of clouded leopard endemic to the island of Taiwan. With no confirmed sightings of it in the wild since 1983, it was declared extinct in 2013.
However, according to Taiwan News, Taiwanese scholars are reluctant to remove it from the endangered species list thanks to rare but occasional sightings, like the recent ones by a group of villagers who say they spotted the elusive animal on two separate occasions in 2018.
Rangers reported seeing more than one cat hunting goats on a cliff in Taitung County’s Daren Township, while another group reported seeing one near their scooters before it ran off up a tree.
The President of the Association of the Austronesian Community College Development Association and village chief of the Paiwan Tribe, Kao Cheng-chi confirmed rangers set up a patrol around the Alangyi Village last June after sightings were reported, according to Yahoo News.
The leopard has become a symbol of Taiwan’s conservation indicators and is a sacred spirit to the Paiwan tribe. The chief said a village meeting had been held to discuss the sightings and how to stop outsiders from attempting to hunt them.
A specimen of Formosan clouded leopard in the National Taiwan Museum c. 2013.
In January of this year, Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau released its latest Schedule of Protected Wildlife and the Formosan clouded leopard is still listed as category I. Chao Ren-fang, a professor at the Institute of Biology at I-Shou University, who was involved in the conservation listing review, told the Central News Agency: "It would be a big event to remove the Formosa clouded leopard from the list.” It would require taking into consideration societal perceptions as there could be a backlash from the indigenous community, he added.
The Formosan clouded leopard has long been a beautiful mystery. Historical records going back to the 13th century document indigenous people bringing pelts to trade in port cities like Tainan. However, other than a Japanese anthropologist, Torii Ryūzō, in 1900, there is no record of a non-indigenous person ever having seen a live one.
This photo of a Taiwanese member of the indigenous community wearing what is thought to be a Formosan clouded leopard pelt was taken by Japanese anthropologist Torii Ryūzō circa 1900.
An interview with 70 indigenous hunters in 1986 revealed the last confirmed sighting of one was in 1983. Once the second-largest carnivore on the island, a field survey carried out between 1990 and 1993 on the leopards and other mid-sized animals in the Dawushan Nature Reserve used 400 cameras and captured 16,000 photos but showed no trace of the cats.
A 13-year survey, from 2001 to 2013, also failed to capture a single sighting, prompting the declaration of extinction.
Although this situation has drawn comparisons with the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine), the Australian marsupial constantly spotted by surprised Aussies despite being declared extinct in 1936, it's not impossible for an animal to remain hidden for years and then nonchalantly pop up again – it happened only last week when a giant tortoise last seen in 1906, and thought eaten to extinction, appeared on an island in the Galápagos.
Neofelis nebulosa brachyura, or the Formosan clouded leopard, illustrated by Joseph Wolf and published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1862.