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.

Conservation priorities for Malaysia--a megadiversity nation in peril

A critical time for Malaysian nature...

A critical time for Malaysian nature...

It was a great conference -- with representatives from 45 nations and lots of outstanding research being reported (ALERT director Bill Laurance gave a keynote talk, and ALERT members Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, James Watson, and Pierre-Michel Forget also spoke).

SCB-Asia has released an important Resolution about priorities for conservation in Malaysia, which you can download here.  Following are a few of the key messages:

- It's urgent for Malaysia to take immediate actions to strengthen biodiversity conservation at both federal and state levels -- especially as the nation had the world's highest rate of deforestation between 2000 and 2012

- Safeguarding the nation's natural capital will be vital for Malaysia to meet its development goals while honoring its commitment to retain 50% of its land under natural forest cover

- It's crucial to support the Central Forest Spine master plan, which is a core strategy for conserving Peninsular Malaysia's remarkably biodiverse forests and maintaining connectivity among shrinking forest blocks

- Malaysia and its states need to strongly support the country's Multilateral Environment Agreements, such as the vital Heart of Borneo initiative

- It's essential to curb illegal encroachment in Malaysia's protected areas, including poaching and illegal logging and land clearing

Our congratulations to SCB-Asia for a terrific conference and for taking a leading role in promoting environmental conservation and sustainable development in Asia.

 

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!"

Help ALERT combat threats to crucial Malaysian park

Have a look at a global map of imperiled animals and plants.  What jumps out at you is the alarmingly high concentration of endangered species in the Malay Peninsula.  That's why ALERT's latest campaign is so crucial--helping to protect one of the most important nature reserves in Peninsular Malaysia.

Selangor Park, along with Malaysia's Central Forest Spine, is prime habitat for endangered species (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

Selangor Park, along with Malaysia's Central Forest Spine, is prime habitat for endangered species (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, who lives and works in Peninsular Malaysia, is helping to promote a campaign to protect iconic Selangor State ParkPlease spend 30 seconds to sign this petition--and also 'like' and 'share' this blog on Facebook and other social media.

Gopalasamy shares his thoughts with us:

The Coalition for the Protection of Selangor State Park is greatly concerned with the proposal to degazette part of the park to make way for the proposed Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road.

Selangor State Park is the largest intact forest tract remaining in Selangor and the third largest park in Peninsular Malaysia.  It forms part of Peninsular Malaysia’s Central Forest Spine and functions as the most important watershed for Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, and Putrajaya.

The park protects forests that are not only rich in biodiversity and imperiled species but provide crucial ecosystem services such as clean water to many residents and businesses in the greater area.

The recent dry spell in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor highlights the need to hold on to every  square inch of catchment forest.  And putting more roads through the Central Forest Spine, a vital habitat for Malaysia's wildlife, will expose endangered species to more threats from habitat loss and poaching.

Selangor Park is a vital source of clean water for a large and growing populace (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

Selangor Park is a vital source of clean water for a large and growing populace (photo by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements)

Since 2009, many members of the public and NGOs have voiced growing concerns about the proposed road project, calling on the government to change the road alignment and not allow it to slice through the park.  But all efforts so far have been to no avail.

Now, with the project about to proceed, we need your help.  Please sign the above petition and help us raise the international profile of this vital area.  You could help us save one of Earth's most important ecosystems.