Clouded leopard is inbred due to human activity jeopardising its survival in the wild

NEWS AND OPINION: This is a typical story of the decline of a wild cat species. In this instance, it’s the clouded leopard with its magnificent coat so treasured, so precious, so beautiful which has added to its persecution through human activity. All the extinctions of the wild cat species come back to human activity in one shape or form.

Clouded leopard is arboreal and can hang upside down like a monkey
Clouded leopard is arboreal and can hang upside down like a monkey. Photo: Reddit.
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And I’m told that in this instance, the threat to survival is rather typical, namely habitat fragmentation. When the habitat of a wild cat species becomes fragmented, small populations become isolated, they breed among themselves and become inbred. Inbreeding leads to infertility and infertility leads to an even smaller population which eventually becomes extinct in that location.

And so, we have a lack of genetic diversity within the clouded leopard population due to inbreeding. That’s the report from a genomic analysis by a study published in Science Advances.

Where the clouded leopard lives
Where the clouded leopard lives. The information is for 2012 and comes from the Red List.

The authors say this is an accumulation of negative genetic features over thousands of years which have suddenly been exacerbated by a pronounced decline in their population numbers triggered by human activity.

The report states that: “Severe habitat fragmentation has probably accelerated the accumulation of deleterious mutations due to high levels of inbreeding”. This is a reference, I believe, to mutated recessive genes which would be invisible normally if there was a good level of genetic diversity but which have become visible and manifest when there’s inbreeding. It’s the kind of problem that exists with purebred domestic cats which are all inbred where it is called ‘inbreeding depression’ which is a reference to ill-health due to inbreeding.

The report continues by adding: “High levels of inbreeding and deleterious genes are key indicators of the genetic crisis affecting clouded leopard conservation and highlight the need for urgent action for the survival of these imperilled big cat species.”

Clouded leopard nibbles Patrick Ayree's ear
Clouded leopard nibbles Patrick Ayree’s ear and climbs all over him in a sanctuary. The cat is female and about one year old. Very inquisitive. Photo: Sky One.

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The clouded leopard is not actually a big cat species. It is a medium-sized wild cat that likes living in trees (an arboreal cat). They have very long tails to aid their balance and they have a propensity to being tame and friendly on my research over the many years I’ve been doing this. They purr like domestic cats.

Clouded leopard purring
Clouded leopard purring. Screenshot.

Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, a wildlife biologist at University Malaysia Terengganu said that: “In principle, it is safe to assume that high levels of inbreeding and low levels of genetic diversity are not good news for species conservation”.

Concerning other species, one way to help improve genetic diversity is to join up fragmented habitats with corridors. In this way you create a large area in which the clouded leopard can live. It would allow clouded leopards to travel between fragmented zones. I would expect them to do something like this if it’s possible. It might not be because human settlements and infrastructure (roads and railways) carve up wild animal habitats and it becomes impossible to repair them with corridors.

The experts have called the threat to the extinction of the clouded leopard a “genetic crisis”. This species is difficult to breed in captivity. There have been instances of paired up cats fighting and killing one another.

The underlying problem is human population growth with increased activity. It’s impossible to correct this problem. There is a clouded leopard population in China and China have a bad record of conservation e.g. the South China tiger. Therefore, any efforts to improve the survivability of the clouded leopard will have to use other less effective measures. This, to me, paints a pessimistic picture for the long-term survival of this beautiful cat.

RELATED: Are clouded leopards really leopards?

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