Thursday, 3 March 2011

ANNOUNCEMENT!!! The Melanistic Bornean Clouded Leopard - First Ever Photograph

By J.K. Charles, Ang Bee Biaw, Samhan Nyawa, Simmons Benalai, Mikaail Kavanagh

The Sungei Ingei Faunal Survey Expedition commenced in July 2010 in the Sg Ingei Protection Forest, Belait District, Brunei Darussalam, with the aim of documenting the wildlife of the area for science and to provide a basis for conservation management. It is a project of Universiti Brunei Darussalam, contributing to the national effort to conserve the Heart of Borneo.[1] An array of camera traps that has been set up has yielded the first photographic evidence that there is a melanistic form of the Clouded Leopard living on Borneo.

The Bornean Clouded Leopard, Neofelis diardii ssp.borneensis, is genetically different from the mainland species, N. nebulosa. While it is not one of the big cats, it is the largest predator on Borneo, having dagger-like canine teeth that are the largest of any cat in relation to body size.

Normally, it has a light tan coat with distinct, large, irregularly shaped ‘cloud-like’ patterns with dark edges. Occasional, very rare sightings have suggested that a dark (melanistic) form occurs in the population, but until now this has not been confirmed with hard evidence. Of the 37 cat species in the world, 11 are said to have melanistic individuals, the best known being the “black panther” which is a melanistic form of the leopard, Panthera pardus.

A camera trap photograph that was taken in the Sg Ingei Protection Forest in Brunei in July 2010 is indistinct but it definitely shows this dark animal approaching the camera, uphill at a distance (see picture). This is exciting news! The animal, as can be seen in the enlarged picture, is very dark with patterned markings. All pictures of clouded leopards in other parts of Borneo, including Brunei Darussalam, show the usual colour form (see picture).

Borneo has 24 carnivore species of which 11 are in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with 4 being endangered. This record of the melanistic form has important implications for Brunei. The Clouded Leopard is endangered throughout in Borneo and under the Brunei Wildlife Protection Act (1984) it is a protected species. Hunting or poaching it is a very serious offence. The Sg Ingei Protection Forest is known for its extraordinary diversity of forest types. While the data are not yet complete or fully analysed, the records emerging from the Faunal Survey are showing that this is reflected in a rich diversity of wild animals. The exciting confirmation of a melanistic form of the Bornean Clouded Leopard is part of a growing body of evidence that shows the major conservation value of this area.

The land area of Brunei is small compared with the overall size of Borneo, yet it is known to include some of the island’s best preserved primary forest. Brunei has pledged to conserve much of its natural forest both for the nation and for the overall Heart of Borneo initiative that is being undertaken jointly with Indonesia and Malaysia. Every effort should therefore go into protecting the Sg Ingei Protection Forest as one of the most biologically rich places on Earth. It is vital that the area and the surrounding region be fully protected for future generations. Ideally, it should become a Wildlife Sanctuary and should be part of a national effort to ensure the safety of all the endangered species of Brunei.

[1] The project is supported by Standard Chartered Bank in co-operation with WWF International’s Heart of Borneo support programme. We are grateful for the support of the Ministry of Industry & Primary Resources, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Brunei Forestry Department, Brunei Museum, and the people of Melilas.

Melanistic clouded leopard ( Photograph copyright of Joseph K Charles)

The Bornean Clouded Leopard – usual colour pattern (Photograph copyright of Adi Aizal)

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