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The Big Read « Indonesia « The Vulnerable Clouded Leopard of Kalimantan, Borneo

SOME SAY A LEOPARD CAN'T CHANGE ITS SPOTS – but the Clouded Leopard did. Its uniquely long sabre teeth and gaping jaws just gave the game away...

The skull and sabre-teeth of an endangered Sunda Clouded Leopard from Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo

The skull and sabre-teeth of a vulnerable Sunda Clouded Leopard from Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

Indonesia: The Vulnerable Clouded Leopard on Borneo

The Sundaland or Sunda Clouded Leopard (Neofelis diardi)

SAY HELLO TO BORNEO'S TOP PREDATOR. No bigger than a small Labrador, you might not be impressed that the solitary, secretive Clouded Leopard can run down tree-trunks headfirst or turn its ankles backwards.

Or that its pelt is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful in the Cat Kingdom.

But there is far more to this fierce, shy feline than meets the eye.

And it's not their magnificent markings that can take your breath away – it's their teeth and jaws.

Gaping jaws and sabre teeth of a captive Clouded Leopard

A Clouded Leopard in captivity shows its huge jaws and over-sized canine saber teeth similar only to the extinct Saber Toothed Tiger

A Clouded Leopard in captivity shows its huge jaws and over-sized canine saber teeth similar only to the extinct Saber Toothed Tiger.

The Teeth and Jaws of a Sundaland Clouded Leopard – A Modern-Day Sabre-Toothed Tiger?

It isn't surprising that the Sundaland Clouded Leopard is often referred to as a modern-day sabre-toothed cat.

Predator's sagittal crest

The pronounced occipital crest, typical of a large predator, on the skull of a Clouded Leopard from Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo

The pronounced sagittal crest, typical of a large feline predator, running across the top of the skull of a Clouded Leopard from Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo (Neofelis diardi borneensis).

Like our athletic tree leopard in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, the prehistoric sabre-toothed tiger – or the Smilodon fatalis – was also a top ambush predator that hid in dense vegetation before pouncing on its prey.

Some say a leopard can't change its spots – but the Clouded Leopard did.

Its uniquely long sabre-teeth and gaping jaws just gave the game away...

Sabre teeth

The skull and sabre-teeth of an endangered Sunda Clouded Leopard from Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo

Over-sized, sabre-like eye-teeth in the upper jaw of an extant Bornean Clouded Leopard skull in a Dayak tribe's longhouse in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

Sunda Clouded Leopard Teeth

Clouded Leopards have the largest canine teeth in proportion to their skull-size than any other living cat – despite being the smallest 'big cat' on the block.

Modern Big Cats – lions, tigers and jaguars – generally have upper canines that measure less than 20% of the length of their skulls.

Not our Clouded Leopard.

Neofelis diardi has an average ratio of 23%, with some individuals possessing upper canines that measure up to 5 centimeters long – or a full 25% of the total length of their skull.

Of course this doesn't beat the famed sabre-toothed tiger's fearsome 25 cm fangs that were a full 50% of their skull length – with both cats using these sabre-like teeth to slash and stab at their prey rather than the slow, suffocating bites typical of other big feline predators.

Illustration of a Smilodon, or prehistoric sabre-toothed tiger

Illustration of a Smilodon fatalis, or prehistoric sabertooth tiger 2017 Dorling Kindersley.

The Jaws of an Ice Age Sabre-Toothed Cat

Like our Sunda Clouded Leopard, the Ice Age Sabre-Toothed Cat also hunted a variety of prey.

And like our leopard, the formidable sabre-teeth of the Smilodon meant that it wasn't afraid to hunt animals much bigger than itself – in prehistoric times, the sabre-toothed tiger's menu enjoyed young mammoths, horses and bears.

But what set the Smilodon apart from its competitors – and the Clouded Leopard far apart from its bigger relatives in Africa and South America – is not just the size of their abnormally-long canine teeth.

The secret lies in their jaws.

The Smilodon Smile

Smilodon sabre-toothed tiger's jaw gape and teeth

1. When closed, the Smilodon's lower jaw sits snugly into the upper jaw.
2. At 60 degrees, or the equivalent of a modern lion, the lower jaw barely clears the massive front canine teeth.
3. At 120 degrees, its lower jaw opens enough to allow the sabre-teeth to come into effect.

Video: The Sabre-Toothed Tiger 'Smilodon Fatalis'

The formidable, awesome Smilodon Fatalis – the feared Ice-Age Saber-Toothed Tiger...

The Clouded Leopard's jaw gape

A modern-day lion can only open its mouth 65 degrees. A Clouded Leopard's jaws can reach 90 degrees – more in line with the sabre-toothed cat's jaw-dropping 120-degree gape.

No other modern Big Game Cat comes close to our Bornean leopard.

Clouded Leopard Diet

Like the Smilodon, the Clouded Leopard is not afraid to hunt prey larger than itself. Feasting on rainforest birds and large lizards, the leopard has also developed a taste for monkeys, mouse deer, barking deer, sambar deer and bearded pigs.

The Clouded Leopard's jaw-dropping gape and saber teeth

A Clouded Leopard shows its sabre-like teeth and massive jaw-gape

A captive Clouded Leopard displays its saber-teeth – and the widest gape of any living (extant) Big Cat in the world.

The Clouded Leopard: At the Top of Borneo's Food Chain

And it's this ancient jaw-gape, borrowed from its prehistoric grandfathers, that has put the Sunda Clouded Leopard right at the top of Borneo's food-chain.

Our Neofelis diardi borneensis is nobody's pussy.

Threats to the Vulnerable Clouded Leopard

Shrinking habitats and food scarcity

Just as the Ice-Age Smilodon fatalis became extinct 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch – most likely due to shrinking habitats and food scarcity – it may be that a similar, albeit man-made threat will be responsible for the extinction of the Bornean Clouded Leopard.

Only a hundred years ago, Borneo's dense, virgin rainforest was the leopard's perfect hiding place and hunting ground.

But humans have changed that.

Deforestation, palm-oil plantations and peatland fires

The massive, primeval island of Borneo has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world – and while primary rainforests still covered three-quarters of the island in the 1980s, palm-oil plantations and peatland fires have crashed the Clouded Leopard's population and its hunting grounds.

By 2005 only 52% of Borneo's primary rainforests – and the Bornean Clouded Leopard's habitat – had survived.

IUCN Red List Status for the Sundaland Clouded Leopard: 'Vulnerable'

The Sunda Clouded Leopard ranks as Vulnerable or at high risk of endangerment in the wild on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

The Sunda Clouded Leopard ranks as 'Vulnerable' – or at high risk of endangerment in the wild – on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

On Borneo, there are only 5,000 to 10,000 Clouded Leopards left.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra – where similar human encroachment and deforestation has crashed the Sunda Clouded Leopard population – their numbers have dropped to less than 7,000.

The Clouded Leopard at CITES

And despite being protected by law – Clouded Leopards are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – rampant poaching continues.

Clouded Leopard: The Black Market, Medicine Trade, Fur Trade and Food

Some live Clouded Leopards are traded illegally as pets. Others are hunted for their body parts – in particular their claws, teeth and bones – and sold in the traditional Asian medicine trade for their apparent healing powers.

Clouded Leopard pelts (furs) fetch high prices on the Asian black market – and its meat even appears occasionally on menus at upscale restaurants in Asia.

It may be time to say goodbye to our Clouded Leopard – the last of the world's sabre toothed tigers.

Video: The Graceful, Shy Clouded Leopard

A moving short film on the shy, ever-graceful, ever-beautiful Clouded Leopard.

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