Doubts remain if the supposedly extinct Formosan clouded leopard still exists, but news of recent sightings of the animal has revived the collective memories of many indigenous peoples and rekindled debate about how it should be classified.
Sightings of the Formosan clouded leopard in Taitung County by Paiwan forest patrols in January were revealed last week in an article in the Apple Daily by National Taitung University's Department of Life Science professor Liu Chiung-hsi
Liu cited Kao Cheng-chi a village chief of the Paiwan tribe, as saying that a two-man patrol and then a four-man patrol from Alangyi Village in Taitung spotted what they felt was the extinct leopard on separate occasions in January 2019.
(Previous stories said the sightings were in June 2018, which Liu said was inaccurate. It was the patrols that were formed in June 2018 to check for logging in their autonomous region.)
On one of the patrols, they saw the leopard, referred to as "Li'uljaw" by the Paiwan people, pounce on a mountain goat from a tree, Kao told Liu.
On the other, they described seeing a leopard darting past a scooter before disappearing back into the woods, Kao recalled.
The Forestry Bureau said it will need to investigate further to try to verify the claims, but senior members of the Bunun tribe said they believe the animal still lurks quietly in the woods.
"The leopards are still watching us with their sharp eyes," said Bunun hunter Jiyanu, confiding that he could feel their existence around him when he was in the wild, "just like ghosts."
The leopard, a species native to Taiwan and thought to be extinct, occupies a special place in the cultures of Taiwanese tribes such as the Puyuma, Bunun, Paiwan and Rukai.
Sixty-six of the animal's teeth, for example, form a crown left by "Matreli," or Ma Chih- a legendary Puyuma tribal leader who lived from 1887 to 1966 and hunted down 13 clouded leopards during his lifetime.
According to Ma's grandson, Ma Lai-sheng the crown is a symbol of peace and was worn by his grandfather at two major ceremonies, one celebrating the end of the 200-year feud between the Puyuma and Bunun and the other recognizing the reconciliation between indigenous and Han peoples during the 228 Incident.
In the Paiwan culture, the Formosan clouded leopard represents the spirit of great ancient warriors, and hunting the animal is prohibited, said Pan Chih-hua head of Alangyi Village's tribal conference.
When Formosan clouded leopards were killed by mistake, they were worshiped with the same reverence that people showed in worshiping their ancestors.
The Formosan clouded leopard's standing as a spiritual icon is unquestioned, but whether the animal can still be found in the wild remains highly contentious.
Extinct or not?
"I believe the animal still does exist," Liu said when asked about his article.
Though acknowledging that the two-man and four-man patrols that said they saw the Formosan Clouded Leopard may have been mistaken, Liu said the only feline in that area is a leopard cat, which is much smaller than the animals seen.
In addition, when he was researching the Bunun people's hunting culture in 1998, some Bunun came forward to admit they had captured Formosan clouded leopards but burned their bodies for fear of being prosecuted under the Wildlife Conservation Act, Liu said.
Two other researchers, Pei Jai-chyi a professor with the Institute of Wildlife Conservation at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology and Chiang Po-jen founder of the Formosan Wild Sound Conservation Science Center, disagree.
The two, hired by the Forestry Bureau to study the Formosan clouded leopard, led a team in search of the animal from January 2001 to May 2004 in the area around the Dawu Taiwan Keteleeria Forest Reserve in Taitung County, using automatic cameras in 400 spots.
But after 13,354 work days, 16,000 pictures, and 232 stations designed to collect the fur or scent of the leopards, there was no sign of their existence, even if the team did hear accounts of sightings or captures of leopards from the previous three decades.
"It is very unlikely that clouded leopards remain in Taiwan," Chiang said in a recent article responding to the news of the leopard sightings.
"If they really existed, based on the experience of other countries it would have only taken 10-20 cameras and hundreds of workdays to obtain pictures of them," Chiang wrote.
If they are extinct, Chiang said it would not be the fault of the tribes but rather overdevelopment in general, such as excessive logging.
"Our hunger for forest resources has deprived animals from their homes as well as indigenous peoples from theirs. It's on all of us," Chiang wrote in his article.
The debate over whether the animal is extinct has led to a classification conundrum. Taiwan's Forestry Bureau continued to call the animal an "Endangered Species" in its latest list of Taiwan's protected species, published on Jan. 19.
But the IUCN Red List, the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species, calls the Formosan clouded leopard "extinct."
Chao Jen-fang an associate professor with the Department of Leisure Management at I-Shou University who helped generate Taiwan's list, said the iconic animal's status made it hard to remove it from the list of protected species.
"Taking the Formosan clouded leopard off the list will require approval from all mammal experts," said Chao, who worried about a possible outcry from the indigenous community.
The recent report of sightings of the animal only makes it more difficult to rule the animal extinct, Chao said.
Whatever the answer, the leopards will likely remain inseparable from indigenous culture.
When Chiang was researching the subject, he recorded the account of Rukai elder Chiu Chin-shih when they met in Taitung near the Shuang-guei Lake Major Wildlife Habitat, known for its diverse ecosystem.
When asked whether Formosan clouded leopards still existed, Chiu said "yes, they still exist."
Thinking they were about to solve a decades-long mystery, excited members asked Chiu where exactly they could be found, only for Chiu to answer: "They remain in my heart."
Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel