Nature full of surprises
Clouded leopardSeptember 2012 ... a night cruise on the Kinabatangan River turned out into an unexpected, unforgettable encounter. I stayed at Danau Girang Field Centre, located in Sabah, Malaysia. It's a research centre, managed by Dr. Benoit Goossens, situated in lot 6 of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and surrounded by tropical rainforest. During three months I went out almost every night looking for frogs in epiphytes for my master thesis. I used a small boat to get to the different study areas. The guides Budin or Samsir accompanied and helped me with my task.
One evening Budin and I came back after sampling. As always, we traced the riverbank with our head torches. Eyes of nocturnal animals reflect light, so they are relatively easy to spot. Almost every night we spotted saltwater crocodiles, fish owls or mongooses. But sometimes we also noticed night herons, bats or even a leopard cat. The latter is not easy to approach, but it is always nice to see in the wild. On that evening we saw eye reflection again on the riverbank. At first sight it looked like a big leopard cat. But when we approached with the boat, Budin and I had some doubt. Before we could see the animal well, it fled away into the dense forest. We tightened the boat and went on the riverbank in search of the mysterious animal. Budin chose the left hand side, while I inspected on the right. Less than five minutes later Budin called me. As quickly and quietly as I could I walked to him. Once there, I saw an animal moving. I pointed my heavy camera to the subject without hesitating and took one picture. I realized that I was less than 10 meters away from the female Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi). In addition the largest carnivore of Borneo had a long-tailed macaque in her mouth. Budin had seen the attack of the clouded leopard on the macaque and stood watching in disbelief. He even forgot to photograph this rarely seen animal. Immediately after I took that first picture the clouded leopard dropped unfortunately his prey and walked quietly away from us. We waited for about ten minutes without any sight of the animal and decided to go back to the boat. But just after we turned around Budin saw the clouded leopard three meters high in a tree. The clouded leopard descended the tree with her head down and went straight to the spot where she left her prey. At the same time Budin and I could take some pictures. The predator didn't take any notice of us and walked quietly around. A little later she search the darkness of the forest back again without her prey.
Budin and I made a cry of joy. It is very rare to see a clouded leopard in the wild, let alone to photograph. Although the first picture was not sharp on the right place, it will probably be unique. A wild clouded leopard with a long-tailed macaque in his mouth has as far as known never been photographed. Back to the research centre we informed Andrew Hearn and his crew, who study the clouded leopard and other cats. Evidently they were very surprised and proposed to return immediately to the spot for placing a camera trap close to the prey. Budin went along to lead them. The clouded leopard had not yet returned because the prey was still there. A week later Andrew checked the camera trap. And yes, that same evening a week ago, and three hours after Budin and I took pictures, the clouded leopard came back for her prey. Also the following two nights the predator came along.
I will never forget an experience like this. Because I was mostly out every night, I created opportunities for encountering a clouded leopard, but I knew the chances were very low. Also, Andrew placed years before in the same area a camera trap for more than six months, which revealed no pictures of the clouded leopard. Sometimes you have to be very lucky. Four months later, back in Belgium, Dr. Benoit Goossens informed me that the same Sunda clouded leopard was seen around the centre from time to time. She has established her territory in the vicinity of the field centre. On 15 September 2013 a Sunda clouded leopard was fitted with a satellite collar for the first time ever, as part of a collaborative project between the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), WildCRU and the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC).