Monday, October 26, 2015

As Tiger Numbers Dwindle, Will Smugglers Target a Different Cat?

A new study reveals dramatic growth in the commercial trade of the rare clouded leopard.

Picture of a clouded leopardThe Houston Zoo is home to several clouded leopards, including this one. Only about 10,000 remain in the wild.
By Rachael Bale, National Geographic

Among wild cats, clouded leopards are increasingly coveted—and bred in captivity—for commercial purposes, according to a new study from University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. They’re being sold into the pet trade, to tourist attractions offering cat encounters, and to other such profit-driven businesses.

Researchers Neil D’Cruze and David Macdonald reviewed import and export records filed with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the body that regulates international wildlife trade, and found a 42 percent increase in the commercial trade of live clouded leopards from 1975 to 2013.

Clouded leopards are native to Southeast Asia and named for their distinctive spotted coats. They’re one of the smallest big cats, weighing up to 50 pounds and growing up to three feet long. They belong to an entirely separate taxonomic group from snow leopards and “regular” leopards, such as African and Indian leopards.
Some 10,000 clouded leopards remain in the wild.They face a high risk of extinction.
The reason for their new popularity has much to do with the decline of tigers, now estimated to number no more than 3,200, whose bones, feet and other body parts are highly prized in traditional medicine and for warding off evil.

Some 10,000 clouded leopards remain in the wild, with no single population larger than 1,000 individuals, spread from Indonesia to the foothills of the Himalayas and into China. They face a high risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, a widely accepted international list of the conservation status of species.

The biggest threat these cats face is deforestation, but the illegal trade is also a grave concern, especially given their growing commercial appeal.

CITES lists clouded leopards as an Appendix I species, which means that only ones bred in captivity can be traded legally.

Picture of leopard skinAt John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2014, officials displayed a confiscated clouded leopard skin and other illegal wildlife products. The illegal trade in the body parts of clouded leopards poses a growing threat to the species.

And that has the researchers worried. They found more than 200 clouded leopards have been legally traded—almost all for commercial reasons—since CITES first began regulating the trade in 1975. And they noted that the CITES records documenting these imports and exports were incomplete and contradictory.

Those irregularities “point toward the possible laundering of wild-caught animals,” the study says. The legal trade in captive-bred animals can serve as a cover for illegal trade activity, such as poaching and passing off wild-caught animals as captive-bred, D’Cruze said.
Another fear is that private owners are turning to clouded leopards now that tigers are so hard to come by. On-the-ground contacts the researchers worked with observed clouded leopards at tiger farms in Southeast Asia—and even at a lion park in South Africa.

“Are clouded leopards going to be the next target if we are not able to step in and save tigers?” said Neil D’Cruze, one of the study’s authors and head of research at World Animal Protection, a London-based nonprofit.
Legal trade in captive-bred animals can serve as a cover for illegal trade.
In some places, including Myanmar, the trade in clouded leopard teeth, bones, and skins far outpaces that of tigers, the traditionally favored source of big cat parts for spiritual and medicinal purposes.
More research is needed, the study concludes, to figure out if clouded leopards are indeed being targeted on a broader scale as a substitute for tigers and tiger parts on a broader scale.

Lynx at Night Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) sits primly on the shore of Loon Lake in Ontario, Canada in 1906. These 11- to 37-pound (5 to 17 kilogram) cats live in boreal forests across Canada and down into the northern United States.

Delicious In a picture taken in 1997, a bobcat (Lynx rufus) gets ready to gobble down a muskrat in Idaho.

Ear Tufts Photographer Frans Lanting caught a photo of this caracal (Caracal caracal) with a camera trap in Kavir National Park, Iran, in 2011.

Smallest of the Small Black-footed cats (Felis nigripes) crouch at their burrow in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, in an image from 2011.

Not Amused The jaguarundi's stubby ears don't seem very catlike, but its haughty expression will be familiar to many a cat owner.

Rescued This oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), otherwise known as a little spotted cat or tiger cat, gazes from the bars of a cage after being rescued from poachers in Peru in 2009.

Bushy Tail European wildcat (Felis silvestris) pauses in a grassy field in Moldova in 2009.

One of the Last The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is perhaps the most endangered wildcat in the world.

Peekaboo pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo) peers from behind a tree branch in the Cerrado ecosystem in Brazil, in 2008.

Surprise A male fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) triggers a camera trap on a fish farm in Sam Roi Yot, Thailand (map).

On Patrol serval cat (Leptailurus serval) trips a remote camera in Zakouma National Park, Chad, in 2006.

Curious Cat An ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) poses on a tree root in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest in 2004.

Baby Steps An eight-month-old male European lynx (Lynx lynx) steps around a dead roe deer in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland in 2011.

Eyes Wide Open The margay (Leopardus wiedii), or tree ocelot, displays huge eyes as it prowls through a forest in Gamboa, Panama.

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