KOTA KINABALU: Studies say a lack of forest connectivity in Sabah threatens the Sunda clouded leopard population.
According to studies conducted by researchers from Oxford University’s WildCRU and Cardiff University (UK), US Forest Service (USA), Sabah Wildlife Department and Danau Girang Field Centre (Sabah), patchy forests are also hampering gene flow in the species.
Dr Andrew Hearn from WildCRU, who led the study, said Sabah was a stronghold for the Sunda clouded leopard on Borneo.
“Yet these rarely seen animals are found at very low population densities, typically as few as one to five animals for every 100 square kilometres of forest,” he said in a statement Sunday (Jan 27).
Such rarity, he said, coupled with the fact that their forest home was shrinking and becoming increasingly isolated, may expose these beautiful cats to the negative effects of population isolation, as individual animals struggle to disperse across the landscape.
Dr Hearn said from their research, they found that core areas of Sunda clouded leopard habitat are comprised of large and unfragmented forest blocks, and areas of reduced forest cover comprise barriers among patches of predicted remaining habitats.
The research was conducted using movement data from clouded leopards satellite-collared in Kinabatangan to produce predictions of their population density, genetic diversity and population connectivity across Sabah.
Danau Girang Field Centre director Dr Benoit Goossens, who is also Reader at Cardiff University, explained that their research, despite being based on computer simulations, used accurate data collected during several years of field research on the Sunda clouded leopard in Sabah.
“We mapped patterns of population connectivity for the species across Sabah and conclude that several forest patches in Sabah may be isolated from one another for the Sunda clouded leopard, jeopardising dispersal of individuals and limiting gene flow,” he said.
“We also identified the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Tawau Hills Park as patches of habitat predicted to have extant clouded leopard populations that are isolated from other populations,” he said.
Dr Goossens said conservation efforts should be made to explore mechanisms to increase connectivity between these areas and the main central forest.
He said efforts can include establishment of riparian corridors, and identification or creation of High Conservation Value forest areas within plantation landscapes.
He said these recommendations were included in the Sunda Clouded Leopard Action Plan for Sabah that was soft-launched by Tourism, Culture and Environment Datuk Christina Liew recently.
“We hope it will be tabled at the next State Cabinet meeting after Chinese New Year,” Dr Goossens said.
This research is supported by Yayasan Sime Darby, Robertson Foundation, Recanati-Kaplan Foundation, Clouded Leopard Project, Dr Holly Reed Wildlife Conservation Fund, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Houston Zoo and Panthera.