orphans of the exotic pet trade

Learning to be wild: How a vet and an ex-poacher are saving India’s big cats

Sandesh Kadur

He didn’t know what to do with them at first. The vet had never seen cats like these.

In 2009, a pair of spotted cubs were dropped onto the doorstep of the Wildlife Rescue Center in Kaziranga, Assam, a tumultuous border region in Northern India whose forests are known for poachers and armed guerillas as much as elephants and tigers.

The days-old felines looked like spectacled house cats—but a closer look revealed that they were in fact clouded leopards—one of the rarest species of big cat. The newborns were orphans, likely victims of the pet trade. Found by local villagers, wildlife veterinarians discovered that the cubs were members of a critically threatened species that counts around 10,000 animals. Like all big cats, their extreme specialization is a drawback, and the problem is a double-jeopardy of dwindling forests and poaching.

With their cloud-shaped rosettes and stealthy movements, the cats are notoriously hard to spot in the wild. From India to Bhutan, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, their habitat has been squeezed by human expansion.

The options were either to lock the cubs up in a zoo, or euthanization. Dr. Bhaskar Choudhary—the lead vet at the center, a joint venture from the International Fund For Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Trust of India—couldn’t bring himself to do either. So, he decided to raise the cubs himself. But there was no guidebook. Mainstream science doesn’t know much about clouded leopards—whether they’re truly arboreal and hunt in the trees, their natural behavior, mating—so much remains a mystery. In captivity, these are the most difficult of the 36 cat species to breed, and males often attack and kill females during mating.

Two clouded leopard cubs, rescued in India during March 2009, that were hand-raised in the first ever attempt to rehabilitate clouded leopards have entered the final stage of rehabilitation where they walk the forests and learn vital skills to survive independently.Sandesh Kadur

Two clouded leopard cubs, rescued in India, were hand-raised in the first attempt to rehabilitate clouded leopards. Here they entered the final stage of rehabilitation where they walk the forests and learn vital skills to survive independently.

Choudhary knew he couldn’t save the cubs alone. So the 42-year-old enlisted a team of vets, a photographer, a poacher-turned-conservationist, even the Indian army, and began a project to re-release the cubs. Over the next seven years, they would rewild half a dozen clouded leopards, a scientific first. But despite such success, the work was not touted as revolutionary, or published in research journals. Some biologists have poked holes in the project’s science. Wild cats shouldn’t be subject to any human contact, they argue, the methods in India so unorthodox that they’re scientifically worthless.

Should it matter if research norms were bypassed since the results helped save members of a critically threatened species? And if these and other counterintuitive efforts benefit endangered animals, could the traditional scientific approach—at least in this case—perhaps be flawed?

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Like many of his countrymen, Choudhary grew up in a small village, in close contact with wildlife. He saw his first elephant as a boy, common in a nation where the pachyderm is a beast of burden.

As an adolescent, Choudhary and a group of friends once crossed paths with a tiger with a cub, perhaps the most dangerous encounter on the subcontinent, where about 85 people are killed annually by shere khan.

“A tigress on a moonlit night, the light falling just right. We didn’t speak for three to four minutes. Everybody was spellbound.”

“You can’t describe the feeling,” Choudhary remembers. “A tigress on a moonlit night, the light falling just right. We didn’t speak for three to four minutes. Everybody was spellbound.”

Choudhary ended up studying to become a wildlife veterinarian. After graduating from university in 2000, he took a job with the IFAW’s Wildlife Rescue Center, an outpost on the outskirts of Kaziranga National Park, a sprawling forest bordering Bhutan.

He would regularly treat injured creatures. Over 16 years, he’s handled “close to 1,000” animals.

In 2009, villagers brought Choudhary two clouded leopard cubs, brothers he christened Runa and Kata. Clouded leopards are the smallest big cat, topping out at around 50 pounds, a tenth of the size of an adult tiger—leopards so rare that Choudhary wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.

“When we started, we were almost unconvinced with our own idea,” he admits.

Attempts to reunite two clouded leopard cubs, found by woodcutters at the Kuklung Range at Chirang district near the Indo Bhutan border, to their mother failed after three days of constant effort. They were handed over to the Kokrajhar Mobile Veterinary Service (MVS) unit, a satellite station of the International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI) run Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) for long term rehabilitation.International Fund for Animal Welfare

Attempts to reunite two clouded leopard cubs, found by woodcutters at the Kuklung Range at Chirang district near the Indo Bhutan border, to their mother failed after three days of constant effort.

Choudhary says the help of forest officials was crucial in the early going. Cub protocol was devised to ensure they received two critical needs: “Honing hunting skills and reduced dependence on keepers.”

To do that, Choudhary modeled the program on bear rehabilitation work. But since nursing created dependency on human foster parents, “the amount of provision food was reduced gradually, which compelled the cubs to interact with prey species for hunting and reduced dependence on keepers.”

Those keepers included Maheshwar Basumatary, an ethnic Bodo tribesman who spent years as a poacher during Assam’s period of unrest from 1988 to 2001. After 2001, Basumatary, like many poachers, surrendered to the government. Provided a job as a conservation volunteer, he was now tasked to protect the forests he had once pilfered. And working with Basumatary, Choudhary says, opened up new insight onto the leopards.

Dr. Panjit Basumatary also played a major role as a vet. And wildlife photographer Sandesh Kadur began filming what would end up becoming a National Geographic documentary. Local villagers were supportive, so was the Indian army, ensuring the territory was safe. But the group had no idea if the cubs would even be eligible for release.

After about six months, the team began taking Runa and Kata on daily walks into the jungle. The cats would run up trees, using their rotating rear ankles to descend head first, their short limbs and long tails helping bolster their center of gravity. Despite being raised by man, these cats were still very wild. At night they were placed in a cage, suspended over the forest floor to get them used to their natural environment. From there, the process of withdrawing food continued until “one day, we completely stopped feeding them.”

This was the most important moment. Hunting meant survival—and success for the team. And they did hunt, so well that their parents stopped feeding them all together.

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In May 2010, Runa and Kata became the first rehabbed clouded leopards in India to be radio-collared and released. But soon after, renewed conflicts between the army and insurgents forced the team to vacate the area. Unable to check on their former wards for an entire year, it was a huge blow to their research. When they did return, they were escorted into the jungle by armed guards.

And what of Runa and Kata?

Locals had reported sightings of a spotted cat with a collar. Camera traps were installed, and after exhaustive searching, they revealed a cross-section of local wildlife: spotted deer, elephants—and a collared clouded leopard.

“We don’t know if they are still alive as of today, but they survived for a year. We have hard evidence of that. I hope that they are alive.”

But the cats were never spotted in-person. And there was trouble with the collars, meaning no data points to build a bonafide scientific study, shortcomings Choudhary acknowledges. Photos and villager accounts confirmed the cubs were spotted, even over the border into Bhutan. After a year, the collars are intended to fall off, and since then, so have sightings. “We don’t know if they are still alive as of today, but they survived for a year. We have hard evidence of that. I hope that they are alive. If they made if for a year, they could make it for the rest of their lives.”

Rescued clouded leopards undergo rehabilitation in India. Rescued in March 2009 by the Assam Forest Department, the cubs were hand raised at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). These pictures were taken on February 2010 and show the leopards cubs during their acclimatization stage, just weeks away from being collared and set free.

Rescued clouded leopards undergo rehabilitation in India. These pictures show the leopard cubs during their acclimatization stage, just weeks away from being collared and set free.

In May 2011, another pair of cubs—a male and female—were found by a man illegally cutting trees in nearby Manas National Park. After he brought the month-old cubs to the center, the plan was to reunite them with their mother. Multiple attempts to do so failed, and the team reemployed their original program. Less than a year later, those cubs were successfully collared and released.

In 2015, a lone cub was rescued, and now remains on the path to rehabilitation. Earlier this year, the team completed a release following a surgical intervention, another first. But without empirical data to formulate a larger take on the species, the project is considered unprofessional. Choudhary seems resigned to the fate that without better monitoring, his efforts will remain misunderstood.

“I think they’re going about it the wrong way,” says Dr. John Goodrich, the senior tiger program director at Panthera. “I don’t think they need to teach clouded leopards anything.”

Tiger cubs as young as seven months old are found to survive without a mother, he says, without being taught hunting skills. Goodrich, who has spent 17 years in Russia studying, rehabilitating, and releasing wild tigers attributes that to the phenomenal instinct prevalent in all cats.

“They don’t need to learn much from parents,” he says. “I would want those cats to have absolutely minimal contact. Maybe even negative contact to teach them humans are bad and to stay away. Being with humans is like learning humans are their friends. When you release these cats to the wild, they’re probably more likely to wander into villages, raid chicken coops, or show up on someone’s doorstep for food.”

In many ways, Goodrich’s line of thinking is right on, considered a gold standard. But perhaps there’s more than one way to teach a cat?

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Choudhary maintains that the work isn’t interfering with natural behavior, or sending the wrong message. And he believes that the cubs learned from each other—not the keepers. But the question of habituation is warranted. In the U.S., de facto wildlife managers like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are strict when it comes to predator control—and for good reason.

“Basically, if wildlife become habituated, they lose their natural fear of humans,” says Andrew Hughan, the agency’s public information officer. “It cannot be released back into the wild simply because it won’t unlearn behavior.”

For bears in California, that means euthanasia if relocation fails. For mountain lions, “we immediately return them back to habitat whenever possible,” Hughan added. Problem animals don’t often get second chances.

Yes, clouded leopards have the longest canine teeth of any felid—resembling a modern, if mini, sabretooth—but they’re very small, much smaller than bears, mountain lions, and in this case, most Indian predators. The concern is valid. However, because these animals are so endangered, conservationists are divided.

“It’s totally not all black and white,” says Beth Schaefer, the LA Zoo’s general curator. Schaefer oversees all of the zoo’s animals, including snow leopards and tigers, and in a role at the Houston Zoo, she worked with clouded leopards.

The pluses of this work come down to whether the animals will be released in areas with people and if there’s enough prey for them, factors Schaefer says could mitigate habituation. Ultimately though, much of the released species’ survival—any species—is chance.

“A lot of it can come down to individuals,” she says. “Some would try to find people again or not know how to hunt. Some would want nothing to do with people and be very successful in the wild. This work [in India] isn’t as weird as it used to be.”

Many zoos have released animals back in the wild, “even zoo born animals,” Schaefer says. Black-footed ferrets, golden tamarins, orangutans, attempts with gorillas. Why not clouded leopards?

Other counterintuitive feline work could further help change minds. Studies by Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust have shown that monks in China and Mongolia are the unlikely saviors of the snow leopard, where 80% of the cat’s range overlaps with monasteries which act as unofficial conservation areas.

In India, Choudhary knows his project won’t get its dues until he can effectively track the cats he’s saved—and prove their survival rates. “The post-release monitoring is the most important part of the entire process,” he laments. “We have not been able to publish our work for lack of good data.”

To date, the National Geographic documentary “is the only way we have shared our experience with the world.” But that may change. After the film aired in February, Choudhary’s was flooded by giddy emails and voicemails.

Who knows, maybe it will lead to donations from abroad, better equipment to track releases? Maybe even leading feline researchers will join and legitimize the efforts by recording enough data to publish in a leading journal?

What is certain is that Assam’s clouded leopards continue to lose prime habitat. They’re still hunted for their coats, their bones, their teeth, and they are ever a target for capture to become pets. And climate change—and deforestation and development—mean “encounters are going to increase,” Choudhary said. “Everyone says ‘if you raise them they will be domestic. How can they be wild?’”

He laughs, a throaty roar that sounds like the animal he’s grown so fond of. “It all depends on your rapport. It all depends on the cat.”