The rare jungle cat that thrives in degraded rainforests | by Gianluca Cerullo

My nostrils had already been assaulted by months of trekking through the Bornean rainforest with an Aldi bag-for-life full of my own poo. Such is the price of conducting research on dung beetles. The one bonus? I thought I had become immunised to bad smells.

But the putrid stench of carrion slammed me like a brick wall all the same.

The truck crunched to a halt. Having just finished a particularly pungent day’s fieldwork, my blissfully empty Aldi bag-for-life and I were hitching a lift down the logging road and back to camp with some scientists who had been prescient enough to research birds instead.

“I reckon it’s a clouded leopard kill,” choked Cindy. At dawn, further up the track, she had caught a rare glimpse of a small leopard as it vanished into the forest. I buried my nose into my sweat-drenched shirt to mask the smell and hide my jealousy.

Sunda clouded leopards are one of Borneo’s most elusive animals. Apart from on Sumatra, they are found nowhere else on earth. Very little is known about these enigmatic mammals. There are thought to be fewer than 4500 mature cats left on the planet and some clouded leopard researchers go entire careers without ever seeing one in the flesh.

Like many species on Borneo, hunting and the replacement of their forested homes with monoculture oil palm plantations have seen leopard numbers plummet. They are now threatened with extinction. But they grab much less international attention and conservation funding than their tiger and snow leopard cousins.

We scanned the green tumble of trees and creepers in silence. The possibility that Borneo’s largest predator could be just metres away—could even be hidden in the undergrowth right now watching us—set my heart racing.

An Asian paradise flycatcher, its tail feathers trailing like strips of silk ribbon, detached itself from the wall of roadside forest and swooped in front of us. The sickly smell of the potential kill—maybe a small sambar deer, or a bearded pig—hung heavy in the humid air.

But no leopards.

“We’ll try again tonight,” said Cindy. The truck rolled on to camp.

At night, the rainforest comes to life. We set off under the light of the moon, our torches and the Toyota Hilux’s headlamps to a chorus of croaking frogs, thrumming cicadas and whistling birds. The silhouettes of enormous dipterocarp trees towered overhead, piercing the canopy below like skyscrapers.

But the further we drove out of the virgin forests surrounding our camp, the more infrequent these giants became.

Borneo has undergone some of the most intensive logging anywhere in the tropics. In Sabah, where we were based, four fifths of remaining forests have been subjected to logging, their oldest, biggest and most valuable trees chain sawed down for timber and their forest interiors opened up by vast networks of logging roads.

We passed a small strip of fluorescent tape that marked the forest entrance to one of my research trails. Patches of vegetation were sporadically illuminated and then plunged back into darkness as we cast our torches from left to right, in search of any tell-tale eyeshine.

As we approached the fetid smell of decay, a small mammal darted in front the car. My heart stopped. We all gasped. Then nervous laughs. It was a palm civet; a smaller, and much more common mammal that looks like a cross between a house cat and a ferret. We pressed on.

In the end, we all saw it at the same time. Sitting there on a road, seemingly without a care in the world. A Sunda clouded leopard. Greyish with cloud-shaped black spots. As we neared, it rose and walked next to our truck. For thirty seconds, or maybe a minute, it just stood there. It was so close I could almost have touched it.

“It’s a different one from this morning. Bigger,” whispered Cindy.

Nobody tried to take photos. We just watched in awe. Then, perhaps tired of our gawping faces, the leopard slinked into the forest. It observed us for a while longer. Then it was gone.

I will never forget that encounter. Not only because of what we saw but because of where we saw it. Not in a pristine jungle but on a logging road, flanked by heavily degraded forest.

Camera trap footage has revealed that clouded leopards are resilient animals. They cannot merely survive in logged forests—they can thrive. Overgrown logging roads provide an easier alternative than travelling through dense brush.

In fact, it turns out that Borneo’s heavily logged forests remain heartlands for huge amounts of biodiversity. From clouded leopards and orangutans, to butterflies, to smelly-to-catch dung beetles and endangered birds. Against all the odds, there is life after logging. Lots of it.

And that fills me with hope.

About the Entry

Gianluca Cerullo

I’m a 23 year old conservationist who has spent the last two summers pooing in a Tupperware in Borneo’s jungles to catch dung beetles. I’ve researched ways of restoring logged forest and recently helped machete a 25 km network of rainforest trails to explore how cutting vines could speed up the regeneration of degraded forests. I like writing about fieldwork, reading good environmental journalism and speaking about cool animals. Oh, and pizza. I also like pizza.

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  • Why should someone visit your site? (For the sheer hell of it / so that someone other than my poor mum reads my blog). Or, otherwise, for stories and videos about scientific fieldwork in Borneo and soon Madagascar and Colombia, and to listen to my occasional podcast about conservation. Also, I’m currently working on a blog series about how to get involved and make a difference in protecting wildlife and wild places. Because extinctions suck and we can stop them.

The winners and runners up of the Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018 (sponsored by Conservation Careers)

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The Wildlife Blog Collection: 2018

Wildlife Blogger of the Year aims to raise awareness about our planet’s incredible wildlife through storytelling for positive change. It is run by Terra Incognita, a social enterprise that seeks to create positive change for people and planet through travel.

Terra Incognita is currently hand-selecting 70 stories from the competition to publish a book celebrating some of the most memorable, entrancing and exciting wildlife moments as told by top nature writers from across the globe.

The eBook will be made available for sale via the Terra Incognita website from Valentines Day 2019 onwards, and will include the top 70 short stories submitted to the competition arranged by geographic regions. Don’t miss out -> reserve your copy of the book now!

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