IFAW-rehabilitated Clouded Leopards go wild in India!

Clouded Leopards1

IFAW-WTI’s Shibani Chaudhury just spent a day out in the forest with two endangered clouded leopards undergoing rehabilitation in Northeast, India. This is her report from the field:

In 3 seconds they shot down to the forest floor, from their enclosure held on a platform 12 feet high, and before you could blink they had bounded up a tree and disappeared high into the canopy!

Two self propelled bolts of lightning the two clouded leopard cubs being rehabilitated by IFAW-WTI in collaboration with the Assam Forest Department and the Bodo Territorial Council were all set to walk, or rather shoot across the forest to their new, larger enclosure a little distance away.

Rescued in March this year by the Assam Forest Department, the cubs were hand raised at the IFAW-WTI Mobile Veterinary Service (MVS) station in Kokrajhar and moved to their rehab site in Kochugaon, western Assam on the 24th of September.

Weak and utterly vulnerable when they first arrived, the two little cubs were meticulously nurtured by the team for about 5 months at the Kokrajhar centre before being shifted to the rehabilitation site.

The journey into the forest was an arduous one. 26 rough kms off the highway – the forest road, post the monsoon, was a challenging slush and slide track; negotiated only because of the high powered trucks provided by the Eco Task force of the SSB, a wing of the Indian Army. The area being prone to political unrest, security was also provided by the SSB for the transfer of the cubs to the forest.

Initially they were walked in harnesses by their keeper in the forest. Within the first two weeks the cubs were quite at home in the forest dashing up and down trees. Gradually they were eased out of their harnesses during the walks and allowed to explore their surroundings independently.

On the 2nd of November, the cubs were moved to a new, larger enclosure deeper in the forest. It took 9 people 3 days to build the platform with logs and branches and place the large enclosure atop it. All the workmen and the fabrication material had to be shipped across 26 kms of rough forest road to the site, just off the Indo-Bhutan international boundary, 3 kms away from Hel river.

Cloudedleopard2 And here we were now, trying to keep pace with them as they darted about like speckled lightning on their walk to their new home… They chase each other up thick tree trunks and then slender young trees with equal ease. When the young trees bend over with the weight of both the cubs, they just drop off to the ground like ripe fruit and are off again! Often they would climb on to the most impossible perch and then peer down at us with their grey-blue eyes.

They come down headfirst on vertical tree trunks (the only cat species to do so), hang upside down from branches like monkeys and walk along the thinnest branches appearing to be as light as squirrels! Their agility defies belief. It is only rarely when they sit still, in their quieter moments, that you realize how young and vulnerable they still are.

Nath, dressed in a green suit, is their ‘surrogate mother’ and regularly leads them up and down the hills on their acclimatization walks. Despite their unfettered movement in the forest now, they do not move beyond Nath’s vision and come to his side the moment he calls out to them with a special sound that they respond to.

We followed Nath and the cubs trying to keep a safe distance. We were pointed out how the cubs would suddenly stop in their tracks to sniff some other animal’s spoor on the ground. We saw elephant footprints and boar spoor. He also told us how on their dawn walks they often lick the dew off the leaves, perhaps to naturally quench their thirst. At this stage though they are provided water in their enclosure, it is part of the acclimatization for them to slowly develop an instinct to keep themselves hydrated in the wild. Nath reports that when the cubs are occasionally walked down to the Hel river, they avoid stepping into the water and seldom lap at the stream.

In their current schedule they are walked in the wild twice a day between 5am-8am and 3pm-5.30pm; they rest and catch naps around noon usually. Nath reports that the cubs have made 3 fairly adept attempts at predation – 2 jungle fowls and one barking deer. So far, they have not captured any wild prey, but they are surely trying!

It’s nearly 2 months now that the two cubs have been out in the forest and slowly they are being allowed to go wild. Nocturnal and arboreal as they are, the acclimatization process can be a challenge – that too in an area prone to political unrest. But fortunately the two spectacular cubs are going strong – as is the highly inspired and dedicated rehab team.

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