Thirteen years, 1,500 infrared cameras, hundreds of catnip-baited hair traps and an almost incalculable number of hours in the field have confirmed what scientists have long feared: the Formosan clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura) is in all likelihood extinct. The subspecies, endemic to Taiwan, was wiped out by poaching, trade in its pelts during the Japanese occupation, habitat destruction and elimination of its natural prey.

"There is little chance that the clouded leopard still exists in Taiwan," zoologist Chiang Po-jen told the Taipei Times this week. Although he seems to hold hope that a few of the cats might still survive, he said "we do not think they exist in any significant numbers."

Chiang, a research fellow with the Mammalogical Society of Taiwan, was part of a team of zoologists from Taiwan and the U.S. who have been looking for the Formosan clouded leopard since 2001. The 13-year quest was an extension of earlier work by Chiang, whose doctoral dissertation (pdf) covered the first four years of the search.

The news of this extinction isn't unexpected, as there hasn't been a confirmed sighting of the Formosan clouded leopard in more than three decades. One dead cat was supposedly photographed at the bottom of an aboriginal trap in 1983, but that photograph was later discredited and the negative disappeared, according to a 2009 report from Taiwan Review. Pei Jai-chyi, a professor at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology who also participated in the 13-year search, told the magazine that Taiwanese aboriginals did not use pits for hunting, preferring snares instead. He suspected the photo was actually taken in Borneo and depicted a similar-looking species.

Chiang was also interviewed by Taiwan Review. He called the search for the clouded leopard "spiritual," saying "A forest with clouded leopards and a forest without clouded leopards mean something different. A forest without clouded leopards is...dead."

The cats may have still existed around the time of that 1983 photograph, even if that picture itself isn't to be trusted. In 1986 Alan Rabinowitz—now CEO of the big-cat conservation organization Panthera—traveled to Taiwan and interviewed aboriginal hunters, forestry officials and villagers; seven people told him they had seen the cats within the previous five to ten years (pdf). Rabinowitz tells me he thinks the leopards probably went extinct soon after he visited the island and says their extinction "represents a sad setback to the incredible biodiversity and vitality of Planet Earth. We must be ever vigilant to prevent such extinctions in the future."

Taiwan's government still lists the Formosan clouded leopard as a protected animal, but it will now review the 13-year study and decide if it will formally list the cats as extinct. Meanwhile, there is still one confirmed Formosan clouded leopard in Taiwan: a stuffed specimen sitting by itself at the National Taiwan museum. Sadly, that may be the last one anyone will ever see.

The main species of clouded leopards (N. nebulosa), still exists in the Himalayas, where it is considered vulnerable to extinction. Another species, the Sunda or Bornean clouded leopard (N. diardi), lives on Borneo and Sumatra and is also considered vulnerable.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photo: An 1862 painting of a Formosan clouded leopard by Joseph Wolf, public domain