Mysterious black leopards finally reveal their spots

Researchers have devised a clever technique to tell black leopards apart -- a trick that may end up saving their skins.  

Jet-black in color to the naked eye

Jet-black in color to the naked eye

The researchers have been studying leopards on the Malay Peninsula -- where almost all of the big cats are jet black. 

Elsewhere across its range in Africa and Asia, the leopard is pale colored with distinctive black spots.

Experts have no idea why the Malay leopards are black and, until recently, could not tell them apart, hindering research and conservation efforts.

But the researchers have now devised a simple method to solve the problem by manipulating the mechanism of automatic cameras.  Such cameras are increasingly being used to study animals in the wild.

“Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it’s only activated at night”, said Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, an ALERT member and coauthor from James Cook University in Australia. 

“However, by blocking the camera’s light sensor, we can fool the camera into thinking it’s night even during the day, so it always flashes,” said Clements.

With the infrared flash firing, the seemingly black leopards suddenly showed complex patterns of spotting.  These spots could be used to distinguish different animals, and help estimate the population size of the species.

Automatic photos of black leopards without and with an infrared flash  (images (c) Rimba).

Automatic photos of black leopards without and with an infrared flash (images (c) Rimba).

The researchers tested this method in northeastern Peninsular Malaysia.  “We found we could accurately identify 94% of the animals,” said Clements.  “This will allow us to study and monitor this population over time, which is critical for its conservation.”

The researchers want to use their new method to study black leopards in other parts of Peninsular Malaysia -- where there is abundant prey but few leopards are seen. 

It’s thought widespread poaching is largely to blame. 

“Many dead leopards bearing injuries inflicted by wire snares have been discovered in Malaysia,” said ALERT director and coauthor Bill Laurance, also from James Cook University.

Laurance said that leopard skins and body parts are increasingly showing up in wildlife-trading markets in places such as on the Myanmar-China border.

At the same time, suitable leopard habitats are disappearing faster in Malaysia than perhaps anywhere else in the world, as forests are felled for timber and replaced with oil palm and rubber plantations.

“Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital,” said Laurie Hedges from the University of Nottingham-Malaysia, who was lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management

“This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal,” said Hedges.

Roads to ruin: Southeast Asia's most environmentally destructive highways

Roads scare the bejeezus out of many scientists because they often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems -- such as unleashing illegal deforestation, logging, hunting, mining, and land speculation. 

Far too many roads are forest killers...

Far too many roads are forest killers...

For that reason it's crucial not to put roads in the wrong places -- such as wilderness areas, places with vital environmental values, or locales with lots of endangered or endemic species.

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) have just published a major analysis of the environmentally most damaging roads in Southeast Asia -- one of the most imperiled and biologically important areas of the planet

This analysis -- which you can download for free here -- identifies the worst roads in Southeast Asia, especially those likely to endanger native mammals and imperil surviving forests.

In total, 16 existing roads and another 8 planned roads were identified as serious 'nature killers'. 

These roads would imperil more than a fifth of all the endangered mammal species in the region, mainly by promoting forest destruction and illegal hunting and wildlife trade.  

A key element of the paper is 10 recommendations to limit road impacts in Southeast Asia.

Far too often, roads are the first step toward ecological Armageddon.  We all have to do more to educate the world about the crucial role that roads play in endangering nature. 

The paper led by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is an important step in the right direction.


Megadiversity in peril?

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is one of Malaysia's most active scientists.  Here he tells us about his mission to save an imperied megadiversity hotspot:

A tsunami of forest clearing for oil palm

A tsunami of forest clearing for oil palm

Malaysia is one of Earth’s 17 megadiverse countries.  It straddles Peninsular Malaysia and a chunk of Borneo.

With over 220 species of mammals, 620 birds, 250 reptiles and 150 frogs, few countries on Earth boast similar biodiversity to Malaysia.

It is also home to bizarre species found nowhere else on earth, often in unique ecosystems such as peat swamps and limestone karsts.  For instance, an you guess what this animal is?

Bizarre land snail  ( image (c) Reuben Clements)

Bizarre land snail ( image (c) Reuben Clements)

It’s actually a land snail.  In 2008, I discovered that this creature, Opisthostoma vermiculum, is the only one in the world with four axes of coiling.  It's known only from a single limestone karst in Peninsular Malaysia.

Unfortunately, Malaysia is fast losing its natural forests to oil palm and rubber plantations and infrastructure development, with wildlife hunting an additional peril.

A recent study showed that Malaysia had the highest rate of deforestation in the world between 2010 and 2012.  As a result, even a network of key wildlife corridors identified by the government may end up being paper corridors.

Many endemic plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.  Even Malaysia’s trio of large charismatic mammal species, the Malayan tiger, the Asian elephant and the Sumatran rhinoceros, now face a very uncertain future.

To advocate for endangered wildlife, my wife Sheema Abdul Aziz and I co-founded a non-profit research group known as Rimba, which means ‘jungle’ in Malay.

Since 2010, Rimba’s biologists have been conducting research on threatened species and ecosystems in Peninsular Malaysia.

Our team of young scientists has managed to secure a state-wide ban on hunting flying foxes facing local extirpation, as well as briefly halting development in a crucial wildlife corridor.

Saving flying foxes in Malaysia

Saving flying foxes in Malaysia

Rimba hopes its research can help decision-makers in Malaysia to reduce growing threats to imperiled ecosystems and species.  Here's our tagline: "we all NEED a jungle out there!"