In search of Taiwan’s lost clouded leopards, anthropology uncovers more than camera traps (commentary)

  • Indigenous folklore says that the Taiwan’s — likely extinct — clouded leopard species led two human brothers to a heavenly place 600 years ago.
  • While biologists have searched extensively for the animal in recent years using camera traps and other modern means, better clues to this enigmatic creature can perhaps be found by consulting Taiwan’s Indigenous people.
  • Whether Taiwan’s clouded leopards are extinct or not, its forests could support a population of up to 600 individuals if reintroduced from elsewhere in the region.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Have you heard the Taiwanese Indigenous folklore about the island’s clouded leopard species Lrikulaw — who led two human brothers to a heavenly place 600 years ago? While biologists have searched extensively for the animal in recent years using camera traps and other modern technology, better clues to this elusive and enigmatic creature can be found by searching for information among Taiwan’s Indigenous people.

I had a chance to talk to Pastor Kainungan Madalralepe, a respected linguist from Kucapugane Village in Vedai, Pingtung County in southern Taiwan. He explained the term ‘lrikulaw’ to me, emphasizing that the term has two parts: lri- and -kulaw. While the first part lri- indicates a future action, “(someone) is going to (do) something,” -kulaw means the action of “drawing with black-color coal.” Semantically, the pastor said, it means “something gets painted (with coal), which indirectly refers to the coat of the beautiful cat, the Formosan clouded leopard.” The pastor also pointed out that the actual animal in the Lrikulaw legend could be a dog (which are roughly the same size as a clouded leopard), and the name is to glorify its important role as a human companion.

For Kucapugane and its satellite villages, it is common knowledge that Lrikulaw means “guardianship, honor, and glory,” as quoted by the chairman of Ngudradrekai Council, Lavuras Abaliwsu. I also read about it before, in many published materials, that Lrikulaw is a cultural symbol for the Ngudradrekai people. Surely, the animal not only represents an endangered (or extinct) biological species, but also an entity of moral positives that unites the human descendants of Kucapugane Village. Lrikulaw, therefore, works as a symbol both culturally and ethically. Without a doubt, I know how this beautiful forest feline has been societally important in Ngudradrekai’s cultural life, while I still have difficulties relating Lrikulaw cultural beliefs and the depressing reality of the species’ conservation crisis and likely extinction today.

A Formosan Indigenous man wearing a clouded leopard pelt with a Japanese colonial officer, 1936. Photographer unknown, collected by Folke Cronholm and sourced via the Creative Commons.

Many sources show that certain human communities continue to cherish the animal by treasuring its tales, skin, and fangs; they are Ngudradrekai and Paiwan tribes in Taiwan (who did so until at least a couple of decades ago), while in Indonesia, there are the many sub-communities of Dayak people from Borneo who do the same to this day. Several questions pop up: Did people hunt the animal down so they could harvest the skin? Was it easy to find the animal? Why do they want the skin? Was this need for the pelt eventually what made the animal endangered? Can we directly conclude that the communities drove the creature to extinction?

The reality seems to be far more complex and slippery than my questions.

Before jumping to any conclusions, we should review the diverse roles that humans have played with wild cats. Since the beginning of European activities along the Indochinese Peninsula, a bounty system introduced by the British in the 19th century (according to tiger historian Peter Boomgaard) seems to be a deeper reason for the organized wildcat hunting that impacted the entire cat family in European and later British colonies amongst the Southeast Asian archipelagos. As to manage the human-carnivore conflicts that took place very often on their subject lands, where a common idea for tiger was “cattle/man-eater,” there was even a proposal for a “Society for the Extermination of Tigers” in Java (Boomgaard 2018), which sadly became a reality some time in the 1980s, after the colonizers had left. Something very similar is likely to have happened with the Formosan clouded leopard during the 50-year Japanese occupation of Taiwan, when Indigenous hunters were paid bounties by their Japanese masters to head into the mountains and fetch clouded leopard pelts (the closest thing to a tiger that Taiwan has, or had) for decorative and egotistical purposes.

A Dayak chief with his weapons and armor, or gagong, in Borneo. Photo courtesy of the Tropical Museum of the Netherlands via the Creative Commons.

Before the mid-19th century, colonial and Indigenous states had already come up with a reward method – bounties – to regulate tiger-caused social problems. In that time, showing the pelt of a tiger could return the hunter a great deal of reward (up to 45 British Pounds, approximately $6,843 today), says Boomgaard. Tiger capturers could bring skins of non-tigers such as leopards and clouded leopard, labeled as “small” or “young tigers” in the official reports, which would not be differentiated from “real tigers,” and still won a good deal of reward.

The bounty system went on and off in different regions of Indonesia and Indochina, by both the British and the Dutch, since it continued to bring enormous incomes for both locals and Westerners. In 1888-1889, there was even a record count of 200 pounds (approximately $30,414) in a place called Caringin for rewarding a tiger kill. Boomgaard mentions that tigers’ rarity came as a new notion only from the year 1975 onwards, which was unfortunately pretty late for the species. In Boomgaard’s research, it shows how a century-long hunt for tigers and tiger-like wildcats was promoted, encouraged, institutionalized, and how it eventually rationalized their slaughter, which led to the extinctions of both the Bali and Javan sub-species of tigers, and greatly reduced numbers of tigers and wildcats elsewhere in Southeast and South Asia. Who to blame, then?

Cover of “Frontier of Fear” by Peter Boomgaard.

Where did the pelts come from?

Indeed, the human-wildcat relation was not always pleasant, and the Paiwan people of Taiwan must have an unknown or mystical relationship with the Formosan clouded leopard, made evident by their love for clouded-leopard-skin vests and headwear made with fangs. Many non-Paiwan authors suggest Paiwan chieftains wore these pelts to show their bravery and strength because Paiwan hunters could prove their skill by killing a “ljikuljau” (in Paiwan spelling), but this explanation can’t persuade me due to its roughness and a slight sense of outsider imagination among those unfamiliar with Paiwan culture and Taiwan in general.

If not, what do the pelts actually mean to the Paiwans? What purpose did they serve? As far as I was told through some private contacts, in the last 50 years, a great deal of clouded leopard pelts from Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China had been taken to Taiwan and sold “very well” in many Indigenous villages in southern Taiwan. That contact, also an Indigenous villager, told us that the number of the pelts was ‘enormous’ and a good fortune was earned. This anecdote explains at least two things; first, a lot of pelts here in Taiwan were imported from southern China; second, the Indigenous villages of various groups do have a strong feeling for clouded leopards. I never heard any Han person treasuring the pelt of a clouded leopard.

There’s much more to tell beside smuggled pelts

Many written observations by Japanese authors in early 20th century mentioned “exorcism ritual for accidental killing of a clouded leopard” in both Ngudradrekai and Paiwan villages. These documents describe the situation and outcome of accidental killings of the animal. Furthermore, if an accidental killing happened (for instance, if a clouded leopard stepped into a trap laid for a deer or boar), they explain how the shaman (pulring’au in Paiwan) led a ritual to “beg for forgiveness of Lrikulaw spirit” in order to dispel bad fortune that might fall to the household, or the whole village. The possible bad fortune includes infertile land or human death, and the exorcism ritual was specifically performed to avoid such problems. In other documents, however, the shaman talks to the spirit of Lrikulaw, inviting more of its siblings to come to the village. What was the reason of such an invitation? The author didn’t reveal more, but perhaps it was to reconcile the killing.

In Taitung County in southeastern Taiwan, I met the leaders of Taromak, a thriving Ngudradrekai village whose history closely bonds with the area surrounding the scenic Twin-Ghost Lakes (Dalupalringi and Taidrengere in Ngudradrekai). There, the chairman of the Taromak Community Association shared with me what he heard from Taromak elders. He explained that one should do certain things if a Lrikulaw was found in a trap. “The owner of the trap cannot enter the village as his fate has changed for the worse. He is bringing potential bad luck. He has to ask the shaman to perform the exorcism ritual so as to calm down the anger of Lrikulaw spirit, asking for forgiveness. Lrikulaw is not from our world, it belongs to heaven, and we are only humans. We must hold great respect, and even fear for it, especially when handling its body. As the old saying goes, “Gift the village leader the skin because only the leader deserves such heavenly love from God, and bury the body with the ceremony as if it was an unfortunate human infant…”

Burying the body of a clouded leopard as if it was a human infant. This analogy is powerful for me, and it is also weirdly beautiful.

See more Mongabay coverage of cat conservation here.

Formosan clouded leopard with inset of a leopard cat, 1932. Photo by Horikawa during Taiwan’s colonial era under Japan.

In Pingtung, assistant professor Dr. Wu Shin-Ju, a community-based conservation biologist who spent more than 20 years amongst Austronesian communities in the country, introduced me to the chairwoman of a Paiwan village called Calasiv. Ljavaus Rairai is the chairwoman of the village, and her name reveals her special status in the influential chieftain clan of the Rairai Family. Ms. Rairai told me, through a private Facebook messenger call after we canceled our meeting due to the recent Covid-19 outbreak, that the Ljikuljau Vuvu have been always very dear to the people of Calasiv. Ljikuljau Vuvu, translated as Ancestor the Clouded Leopard, is one of many respected ancestors in the Calasiv animist tradition. “The Ljikuljau Vuvu, like other ancestors, have an intimate relation with us. They speak to us. They choose a certain village elder from us to deliver messages and advice. There have been many times that the elders received their words on the village matters. We obey their will and make decisions accordingly, once they reveal themselves to us through dreams or in a trance state.”

Big cat researcher Dr. Gregory McCann, Assistant Professor at Chang Gung University here in Taiwan, has made similar observations among the Batak people of Sumatra, Indonesia. While Muslim on the surface, old animist beliefs die hard, and in most villages around Lake Toba reside shamans who can interpret the evening calls of tigers, the roars of which are said to be advice being handed down from the big cats to the villagers.

While I was writing this article, I was not sure what gender or sex should I use for the Ljikuljau Vuvu, because the Paiwan term Vuvu is used for both grandmother and grandfather, so kids in the village will address elders by calling all elders Vuvu. So, I texted and asked Ms. Rairai about this. I thought she would answer with no hesitation, and I guessed Ljikuljau Vuvu is a he/him. But she paused for a few seconds, and said, “There are two elder females Vuvu, in our experiences so far. The ones that recently talk to us were all females.” What a surprise! And her answer made me realize just how complex, deep, and rich a relationship Taiwan’s Indigenous past/culture/civilization have with the Formosan clouded leopard.

They are also natural disaster victims

After knowing our clouded leopard ancestors are females, I became truly intrigued by Taiwan’s non-Han society, also often known as the Indigenous Formosan, or more correctly, the Austronesians. Although the Austronesian populations have been largely influenced by the mainstream Han Taiwanese society, they do have much richer, unique and irreplaceable connections with the heavily forested mountains and the wildlife that it shelters, compared to those of Han people (like mine). Currently, there are more than 720 communities registered as Indigenous villages, and Kucapugane, Taromak, and Calasiv are among them. The people of Kucapugane speak the language of Ngudradrekai, which was originally located in a valley near the North Da-Wu Mountain Peak. In the past two centuries, the village had been relocated several times, majorly due to the government’s population control (between 1900 and the 1970s) and post-disaster management, such as Typhoon Morakat (2011), a most devastating one in recent decades.

From the original location of the village to its most recent settlement in Majia Township, the villagers might enjoy more opportunities in cities, but behind the scenes, there is a painful history of displacement. Ngudradrekai anthropologist Dr. Taiban Sasala, Professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan, says that the analogy of the displaced Ngudradrekai people and the lost clouded leopard species from the country must be taken together seriously. They both lost the way home in deep forest and their future fate are definitely intertwined. This means a successful future of the species on the island is the successful future of the Ngudradrekai life.

Clouded leopard. Image by Ltshears via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa). Image by Ltshears via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

We need a predator for ecosystem conservation

There are some who argue that there is simply not enough Formosan clouded leopard (quite possibly a sub-species called Neofelis nebulosa brachyura) specimens to confirm that the species ever existed all. I personally agree with zoologist Dr. Chiang Po-Jen, that the Formosan clouded leopard was not a taxonomically distinctive subspecies, as many studies demonstrate. Or let me put it another way; it would be far more important to believe the species was part of Taiwan’s ecosystem, so it can be easier for future conservationists to consider the continental clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) as a reintroduction candidate that extends from both mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. The belief in subspecies may do no good for ecosystem conservation actions due to unnecessary levels of concerns for genetic compatibility.

Also, for Austronesian scholars, Taiwan’s Indigenous communities are considered the origin of Austronesians, including the peoples in both continental and archipelago Southeast Asia. Because islands in Indonesia have more than one kind of clouded leopard, and some places there also using the term lrikulaw or kulau referring to clouded leopard, I cannot stop thinking that early Taiwanese definitely had lived side by side with the mild-tempered wildcat and slowly exported the term to maritime Southeast Asia, during the very long history of Austronesians’ maritime trade, long before Arabs controlled the sea routes from the seventh century onwards.

Japanese official documents on Taiwan’s clouded leopard

Many people are not convinced that clouded leopards did exist in the dense forest of Taiwan, nor do they believe the stories from Indigenous groups. But several records from the Japanese era (from 1895 to 1945), actually provide rather neutral evidence of the animals’ presence back then. The Japanese had set up exchange stations (蕃產交易所) at certain places to be closer to products or goods from Indigenous villages. In the records of these exchanges, between columns of items’ names and prices paid, among varieties of deer parts, pangolin skins or leopard cat pelt, we find the name of “leopard” that was distinctively listed beside leopard cats. Maybe the Japanese had not called the species “clouded leopard” yet, but they surely knew the animal was not a leopard cat, a much smaller species here. Also, from the photographs by Japanese naturalists, clouded leopards were unquestionably part of the local faunas in the exotic, tropical colony they wanted to learn and manage. Was the former government (i.e. Japan) aware of the species? I think they were, and more so than many of us today.

Account book of exchange stations, 1930. In the framed area is a purchase of leopard bones.
Account book of exchange stations, 1932, framed area also shows a purchase of leopard bones.

What made the Taiwan population regionally extinct, and can they come back?

Formosan clouded leopard numbers were probably never extremely high, and a combination of traditional hunting, then hunting on bounties or orders from the Japanese (much like what the British and Dutch did in Indonesia, India, and elsewhere) drove the species to the brink of extinction. Any stragglers who survived the onslaught of the Japanese period were likely wiped out by modern snare-hunting techniques, which, though set for wild deer and pigs, are still bountiful in Taiwan, indiscriminately trapping anything.

While a wild pig can live for up to a week while snared, clouded leopards panic and dehydrate fast, as has been observed in Cambodia — according to McCann and a recent case handled by the wildlife conservation group Wildlife Alliance — and in their attempts to escape inflict terrible snare wounds which soon kill them. Among all of this, state-driven, systematic deforestation in search of lucrative camphor trees had been drastically degrading the quality of habitats throughout Taiwan; in the 200 years of selling camphor worldwide, the Lrikulau died off and faded away with their homeland.

No matter what, the historic photos of Indigenous hunters wearing their pelts, the museum pieces in Osaka, and the abundance of Indigenous folklore surrounding this enigmatic species — which is still not well understood even where it is extant — lend sufficient credibility to the Formosan clouded leopard’s previous existence in Taiwan, and quite possibly make the argument for its reintroduction into the wild here.

Given that clouded leopards lived here in the past, their reintroduction to an island that has a substantial (and in terms of macaques, a possibly out-of-control) prey base, should be seriously considered. Macaques are so overabundant that many farmers consider them pests, and as they have no natural predators aside from the majority Han People (who are forbidden by law to kill them), their population will continue to expand and their role as pest will only increase.

The gate at Calasiv Village, Pingtung, features a pair of clouded leopards. Photo by Yu Shih-Hsuan.

The Tawu Mountains of Taitung County in southeastern Taiwan encompass 480 km² of thickly forested mountains, prime clouded leopard habitat. The prey base in this region and across the island in general is excellent. Back in 1988, Alan Rabinowitz (1953~2018, one of the founders of cat conservation group Panthera), was here with Taiwanese scientists to help the local government to establish Tawu Mountains Natural Reserve.

Whatever happens in the future with the Formosan clouded leopard, Taiwan’s Indigenous communities will play a vital role; they know its past, and they can point the way to its future. Just before the 2020 global outbreak of COVID-19, Chiang and I had the privilege to welcome the then CEO of Panthera, Dr. Frederic Launay, to Taiwan, through our mutual friend, Dr. Mohamed Kashoggi, who is very enthusiastic for Taiwan as well as for wildlife conservation. We met some enterprising Ngudradrekai youths, toured the hills of Karamemedisane village, and presented in Kucapugane our attempt to cooperate with Ngudradrekai people in reintroducing the clouded leopard to their traditional lands.

I was the interpreter for Fred in his presentation to the elders, while Lavuras Abaliwsu was a Ngudradrekai interpreter. Fred told the story of reintroducing oryx in Chad and how one local man said to him that his grandchild can now see what he had seen from his own childhood on that brown savanna. That savanna should always have the oryx on it. What Fred tried to say is, species reintroduction means a lot, when it triggers local people’s particular values for their own life and culture that they all want to carry on together and pass to the next generation. Species reintroduction is not bringing back every species that we have lost in the Pleistocene or the Holocene. Species reintroduction is to reconnect a community with what they have missed heavily. So people play a loaded role in each of these biodiversity goals.

Dr. Frederic Launay interviewed by Taiwan Indigenous Television when he visited Pingtung.

Sighting of clouded leopard 2019: the divine role of community

In 2019, there was a so-called clouded leopard sighting in a Paiwan community called Alanyi in Taitung. Although the news reports, both domestic and international, are rather ecstatic about the sighting, people from social media, most of them metropolitans, did not treat the incident as seriously as the Alanyi community, and even ridiculed the Paiwan people.

To me, what the Alanyi actually saw in their forestland does not matter that much, compared to other scientific minds; what matters is how the Alanyi responded to the alleged sighting. They quickly issued a public announcement and forbade any entrance, including officials and scientists. To them, it was their responsibility to ensure no poachers or opportunists were going to harm the possible animal, nor the land of Paiwan-Alanyi. Community leader Alapay Patalaq is a unique personality and well-educated, and it was his strong sense of protection to guard the landscape and seascape (part of Alanyi has coastline) that their ancestors left them; the very spirit as well as the clouded leopard species must be taken seriously in their ancient faith. Patalaq, with the support of his villagers, wanted (and still wants) the whole world to respect the space and peace that the very last, lonely clouded leopard should enjoy. This part of the sighting story is definitely not exciting enough to be reported, but I personally cherish its subtle relation to future conservation, where specific local communities, such as indigenous peoples, bond themselves so tightly to an area of land and the health of it.

TV program shot after the alleged sighting, with interviews of Alapay Patalaq (潘志華), by Taiwan Indigenous Television (in Mandarin).

Can Taiwan provide good quality habitat for clouded leopard?

According to the latest nationwide camera trap monitoring program, Po-Jen Chiang says the population of clouded leopard prey (macaques, muntjacs, serows, and sambar deer), have been increasing and expanding throughout the country. In his earlier research on the potential capacity of the clouded leopard population, based on the data from countries in Southeast Asia, it’s highly plausible for the forestland of Taiwan to support a population of 500 to 600 individuals in the best quality habitat. With more evidence from witnessing clouded leopards using higher altitudes, the increased and abundant prey in our country of Taiwan, and more studies of clouded leopard population in other Southeast Asian countries, it is possible that Taiwan could support an even bigger population.

Bark peeling by Taiwan’s overly abundant sambar deer kills trees. Photo courtesy of Dr. Chiang Po-Jen.

The increase of herbivores (muntjacs, serows, and sambar deer), is not just the outcome of ecological fieldwork through camera traps; it is also commonly felt by hunters of almost all communities in Taiwan. Hunters don’t have to hike for several days to find deer: they have become far easier to get if we compare it to ten or even 20 years ago, village elders said, when deer meat was more special for households because of its rarity, compared to today. Today, according to numerous farmers across the country (very often also Indigenous), sambar deer, wild boars, and macaques are foraging on their farms and causing various levels of damage, which was unheard of before.

Conservation authorities have witnessed (bark) peeling done by sambar deer, which directly causes death of trees. Also, these herbivores’ over-browsing of the forest understory is causing the decline of biodiversity, and is in need of serious research. Increased macaque groups’ foraging for canopy bird nests, causing breeding failure, has also been observed.

Cascading effects from herbivore and macaque population growth are surely hard to measure, but neither is it positive for the ecologists to see these phenomena. I just hope a group of carnivores may intervene and create a stronger forest with us, and for us, in recognized companionship with local Indigenous communities.

Yu ShihHsuan is a conservation anthropologist and community coordinator for Clouded Leopard Association of Taiwan, and a doctoral student studying under environmental anthropologist Michael Bollig at University of Cologne.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of the important role of Indigenous peoples in biodiversity conservation, listen here: