Aims: The clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is the most dependent species on forest ecosystems among all large felids native to China, its distribution is therefore sensitive to deforestation and its survival needs particular attention in conservation. China hosted the majority of N. nebulosa’s historical range, however with the impact of poaching, deforestation and land use change, the range and population of N. nebulosa had undergone severe contraction and decline throughout the past decades. In addition, relevant research and effective conservation actions were still lacking both in and out China. As the result of the drastic changes in recent decades, the current distribution and survival outlook of this charismatic large cat in China requires urgent and rigorous reassessment in order to raise more awareness and conservation investment to ensure the survival of this species in the future. Specifically, this study has 3 objectives: (1) to review the historical range of N. nebulosa in China since 1950; (2) to assess the current distribution of N. nebulosa in China from 2010 to 2020; (3) to identify the existing potential habitats of N. nebulosa in China and evaluate their habitat suitability in terms of area, quality, deforestation and protected area.
Methods: (1) To review the historical range of N. nebulosa in China, we searched and examined the occurrence records of N. nebulosa with solid evidence in specimen collections, peer-reviewed publications, local gazetteers and media reports since 1950, and summarized the confirmed years of attainable presence record in each provincial administrative division of China. (2) As for the current distribution of N. nebulosa from 2010 to 2020, we conducted camera-trapping surveys in 55 sites across China, and reviewed contemporary camera-trapping studies in China for confirmed captures of N. nebulosa. (3) To identify the existing potential habitats of N. nebulosa, we joined the results obtained in this study with results from previous studies to generate a presences/absence localities dataset of N. nebulosa in China, and then calibrated the habitat suitability models that was recently published with this dataset to determine the potential habitat patches within China. Lastly, potential habitat patches identified in this manner were overlaid with protection area and administrative divisions, and habitat suitability change was assessed by forest cover change in 2010‒2020.
Results: Back to the 20th century, the distribution of N. nebulosa in China spanned 17 provincial administrative divisions. However, the once widely distributed N. nebulosa can now only be confirmed to continuously occur in 10 study sites of 2 divisions: Yunnan Province and Tibetan Autonomous Region. There has been no evidence for the presence of N. nebulosa in 12 of its historically distributed divisions for more than 20 years. The species’ potentially suitable habitats in mainland China are now restricted to 9 patches with a total area of 64,093 km2, and in only 2 trans-border patches in the southwestern can we confirm the presence of the species from 2010 to 2020: the Himalaya-Western Hengduan-Arakan Mountains and South Wuliangshan-Annamite regions. Although in these 2 patches, the contiguous area abroad (428,511 km2) was much more extensive than that in China (41,373 km2), the extent of annual forest cover loss in 2010‒2020 was slighter in China (0.84%) comparing to abroad (1.57%). In addition, the percentage of protected area cover was higher in China (34.33%) than abroad (22.02%) in these 2 patches.
Conclusion: From 2010 to 2020, N. nebulosa occurrence in China was confirmed from southwest Tibet, west Yunnan, and south Yunnan, where populations were likely only sustained in transborder habitats with domestic challenges and ongoing severe threats abroad. Relevant departments should strengthen domestic anti-poaching law enforcement, restore habitat suitability and connectivity, and foster transborder collaboration among protected areas, research institutes, governmental organizations and local communities, in order to ensure the long-term survival and growth of N. nebulosa populations in such border regions. In particular, special attention and efforts should be put to Mengla County, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, where N. nebulosa still exists and 68.36% of its potential habitat is already protected.