A glimmer of hope for animal lovers around the world is coming out of Taiwan, where rangers say they’ve spotted a leopard originally thought to be extinct. The Formosan clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura) was declared extinct in 2013, though the last official sighting occurred in 1983.
The ‘extinct’ Taiwanese leopard (also known locally as Li’uljaw) is a subspecies of the clouded leopard endemic to the island of Taiwan. An interview survey conducted in 1986 among 70 indigenous hunters revealed that the Formosan clouded leopard was last sighted in the Tawu Mountain area in 1983.
‘Extinct’ Taiwanese Leopard Not So Extinct?
The Formosan clouded leopard was spotted by several witnesses in the wilderness of southeast Taiwan, according to Central News International. Village rangers claim they saw the Formosan clouded leopard when they were exploring in southeast Taiwan on two separate occasions. One set of rangers claimed to see the leopard hunting goats on a cliff in Taitung County’s Daren Township (1). Another member of the Alangyi village said they saw a leopard dart past a scooter before disappearing back into the woods.
“I believe this animal still does exist,” National Taitung University’s Department of Life Science Professor Liu Chiang-hsi told Focus Taiwan News Channel. The professor said it was no surprise that the animal had not been seen for decades as they are vigilant and not easily trapped.
Liu cited Kao Cheng-chi, president of the Association of the Austronesian Community College Development Association and village chief of the Paiwan people, as saying that people from the Alangyi Village in Taitung spotted what they felt was the extinct leopard in June 2018 (2).
Following these incidents, a village meeting was held in January of 2019 to further investigate the leopard sightings and prohibit outsiders from hunting in the area. The leopard has become a symbol of Taiwan’s conservation indicators and is a sacred spirit to the Paiwan people.
Pan Chih-hua, head of the Alangyi’s tribal conference, confirmed to CNA that the men from his village spotted the Formosan clouded leopard in the wild, but they were reluctant to disclose the time and location of their sightings.
Liu said that when he was researching the Bunun people’s hunting culture back in 1998, some Bunun came forward to admit they had captured Formosan clouded leopards, but burned their bodies in fear of being prosecuted under the Wildlife Conservation Act (3).
Mongabay, an independent news source, contacted the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); an agency that maintains the Red List of Threatened Species. A press officer responded that after polling their big cat experts, that the lack of information available makes it difficult for them to give a conclusive answer as to whether this sighting could be accurate.
Investigations to Be Held by the Paiwan
The leopard has become a symbol of Taiwan’s conservation indicators and is a sacred spirit to nations such as the Puyuma, Bunun, Paiwan and Rukai. In Paiwan culture, the Formosan clouded leopard represents the spirit of great ancient warriors, and hunting the animal is prohibited (4). When Formosan clouded leopards were killed by mistake, they were worshipped with the same reverence that people showed in worshiping their ancestors.
The Paiwan nation decided to reveal news to the public and conduct their own investigations, but is standing firm on prohibiting outsiders, namely the Forest Bureau, from intervening, according to Liu.
“The government never respects the right of autonomy of indigenous people,” said Liu, who also attended the meeting (5). “The tribal people are definitely more capable than government officials in this matter.” Liu told CNA, blasting the bureau for not being as activate as it had claimed in investigating the situation.
The plan is that investigation will be led by the Austronesian Community College in Taitung, who have much better ties with the Paiwan people.
Huang Chun-tse, deputy director of the Taitung Forest District Office said there was a misunderstanding between the two sides, hoping that they can “arrange a day as soon as possible with tribal leaders for a follow-up and to provide the resources [they] have.” Huang has not heard back from the Paiwan nation.
The longstanding conflict between the Paiwan people and the Forest District Office reached its height in March of 2018, when the office began a forest-thinning project in the nation’s autonomous area. Liu said that while the office did apologize to the tribe, the government had been brutal during the incident and had shown no real regret over its error.
Chiang said that Taiwan could learn from other countries to see how different groups holding different positions could work together toward the same goal.
A good example is the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty, which was signed between 11 U.S. tribes and the Canadian First Nations to establish intertribal alliances for cooperation in the restoration of American buffalo on land within Turtle Island (the U.S. and Canada).
The 2014 treaty demonstrates joint efforts to protect the endangered buffalo. Before colonization of Turtle Island (U.S. and Canada), buffalo once numbered in the tens of millions. But due to the governments plan of starving Native Americans into submission, so many buffalo were killed that they nearly went extinct in the late 19th century. In fact, one wealthy hunter was told to “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” by a colonel after expressing his guilt for shooting 30 bulls in one trip (6).
Buffalo populations have now grown to around 12,000 in 2016, according to the IUCN Red list. Thanks to conservation efforts made by Indigenous nations across Turtle Island (to clean up the mess made by the governments’ attempted genocide on both Indigenous Peoples and Buffalo), we don’t need to worry about dwindling buffalo populations anymore.
Chiang believes that this case shows that Indigenous-initiated conservation efforts for wildlife can work effectively.
Chiang’s full dissertation on the ecology and conservation of the Formosan clouded leopard can be found here.
The Formosan Clouded Leopard: How Did They Go Extinct?
While most people might blame the local communities who killed off populations of the Formosan leopard, this is far from the truth. In fact, it is these communities who have protected and understood the importance these big cats have on nature as a whole. The relationship between the indigenous people of Taiwan and the Formosan clouded leopard goes so deep, such that no record exists of any non-indigenous person ever having seen a live one (7).
Chiang said that if the Formosan clouded leopard is extinct, it wouldn’t be because of the Paiwan (or other nations), but rather, overdevelopment in general, such as excessive logging. “Our hunger for forest resources has deprived animals from their homes as well as indigenous people from theirs. It’s on all of us,” Chiang wrote in his article (8).
Whether the Formosan clouded leopard is extinct or not, they still remain inseparable from indigenous culture. When Chiang was researching the subject, he recorded the account of Rukai elder Chiu Chin-Shih when they met in Taitung near the Shuang-guei Lake Major Wildlife Habitat – a place known for its diverse ecosystem.
When asked whether Formosan clouded leopards still exist, Chiu said “yes, they still exist.” While he didn’t mention exactly where they could be found, he did answer that “They remain in my heart.”
The Paiwan have implored the government to stop logging in order to allow the Formosan clouded leopards to come out of hiding (and to allow their prey to return to normal numbers).
The main species of clouded leopards (N. nebulosa), still exists in the Himalayas, where it is considered vulnerable to extinction. Another species, the Sunda or Bornean clouded leopard (N. diardi), lives on Borneo and Sumatra and is also considered vulnerable.