Special news from the Northeast for all the wildlife and travel enthusiasts. At an elevation of 3700 meters, clouded leopards were spotted along the Indo-Myanmar border in a community-owned forest. The controversial part is that this is one of the highest altitude places in Nagaland where an animal has been spotted to date. The photographic evidence of this was brought in by a team of researchers.
This unique and rare research is published in the Winter 2021 issue of the Cat News, the IUCN/Species Survival Commission (SSC) Cat Specialist Group’s biannual newsletter.
Under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the distinctive tree-climbing clouded leopard ( Scientific name: Neofelis nebulosa) and a medium-sized field (wild cat) is considered as the smallest wild cats among the rest. This species is also categorized as ‘Vulnerable’na. This sighting was very special and significant as they are said to inhabit low elevation evergreen rainforests.
At an elevation of 3,700m in the community forest of Thanamir village in eastern Nagaland’s Kiphire district, camera trap images of the clouded leopard were recorded. These images were recorded by the researchers from the Delhi-based non-profit Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). The forest, measuring 65 sq km, houses Nagaland’s highest peak, Mount Saramati.
The WPSI and Thanamir village conducted this collaborative initiative to document the area’s bio-cultural diversity. The team of researchers placed over 50 camera traps in the village community forest — first between January and June 2020, and later between July and September 2021.
“In total, we have evidence of at least two adults and two cubs. Two distinct individuals were photos captured at a camera placed above the tree line at 3,700 m close to the summit of Mt. Saramati. Another individual was photo captured at 3,436 m,” stated a part of the peer-reviewed publication, authored by Ramya Nair, Alemba Yimkhiung, Hankiumong Yimkhiung, Kiyanmong Yimkhiung, Yapmuli Yimkhiung, Toshi Wungtung, Avinash Basker, and Sahil Nijhawan.
“The capture was especially significant because the population included breeding individuals”, said
Nijhawan, a conservation anthropologist who works in Arunachal Pradesh, and is an advisor to the WPSI initiative. “They are residents of the area, and are reproducing there, which indicates that there is enough food and forest cover for them to do so,” he also said, adding that little is known about the “stunning and beautiful” clouded leopards, which are usually found in tropical rainforests, “full of trees”. “But we have found them at heights above where the trees end,” he said.
There are previous reports of high-elevation records of clouded leopards, but in state-protected areas, including Sikkim (3,720 m), Bhutan (3,600 m), and Nepal (3,140 m). According to Nijhawan, Nagaland sighting of the clouded leopard in a community forest, surprisingly reflects that such areas host a wealth of biodiversity even though it is not protected by law.
“Traditionally, across India, forest and wildlife are protected by law enforcement. While this may work in the rest of the country, in the Northeast, much of the forests are owned by local communities,” he said, adding: “Villagers use these forests, yet they support amazing biodiversity, which is globally threatened.”
The Yimkhiung tribe that resides in Thanamir, calls the clouded leopard “Khephak”, which means a greyish big cat. This is the name given by them in their local Chirr dialect.
Asiatic black bear, yellow-throated marten, stump-tailed macaque, Assamese macaque as well as the Asiatic golden cat, marbled cat, and leopard cat are a few of the other species photographed in the survey.
Speaking about the project, Nair, of the WPSI, said that
Nair also elaborated on the project and said, “The team has been generating data on wildlife population through camera trap images of mammals in the forest, as well as conducting bird surveys, in collaboration with the local student union and village council. All this data will help them (local bodies) form their resolution and management plans in the community forests,”
Vidya Athreya is a Wildlife Conservation Society ecologist who has extensively and rigorously worked on human-leopard interactions. According to her “little” was known about the clouded leopard, and such evidence was “fascinating” to come into the light. Supposedly this significant sighting should help in the increase of knowledge of the habitat of such distinctive species according to Nair.
“All high elevation records are from summer months suggesting that clouded leopards may seasonally expand their range upwards as the snow recedes and higher ridges attract prey” stated the paper.
It also said that if the climate warms up further, it is “likely to experience range shifts, expansions or contractions” and further investigation was needed to “understand which species benefit and which lose out.”
The majority of the research on clouded leopards is restricted to state-protected areas. Keeping this in mind the researchers have encouraged more surveys, conducted “ethically, equitably and collaboratively with local people”, within non-state forests, especially in the Northeast.