This is a tale from indigenous Rukai folklore about two of Taiwan’s most formidable native hunters: The Formosan Black Bear and the Formosan Clouded Leopard.
It is said that the bear and the leopard both originally wore pale coats of white fur and were rather dull in appearance.
The black bear was not black and the leopard had no spots, and they lamented their rather boring appearances. Eventually, the two friends came up with an idea—they decided to take turns painting and decorating one another.
And so, as per their agreement, the pair met up in the woods one day, each bringing along tools with which to paint the other.
It was first the turn of the leopard to be decorated. The gentle, honest bear meticulously created beautiful patterns resembling clouds on a backdrop of pale yellow.
After long hours of careful work, the exhausted bear created a masterpiece and the leopard was satisfied with the result.
Next, it was the bear’s turn to be decorated. The tired bear decided to nap whilst the leopard worked and quickly fell into a deep slumber. The leopard, however, was less honest than the bear and he had his own ideas for the task at hand.
The leopard, noting the bear’s large size, looked for a more efficient method for changing the bear’s appearance. He also did not wish to be outshone by the bear.
And so, the leopard went to a nearby pond, dug up copious amounts of black mud and carelessly applied the substance all over the bear’s body. Only a single crescent-shaped spot across the bear’s chest was left untouched by the mud, which remained the original white.
When the bear woke up, he was furious.
Sure, he was no longer a dull pale, but this new appearance was not much of an improvement. After all the effort he put into painting the leopard’s beautiful new coat, the bear felt cheated and betrayed. The angry bear chased after the frightened leopard, for the bear intended to punish the leopard for his insincerity.
After a long, relentless pursuit, the bear trapped the leopard among the branches of a tree. Terrified for his life, the leopard tried to negotiate: He promised the bear that, in exchange for sparing his life, the bear could always have a share of the leopard’s kill in a hunt.
The bear considered the offer and eventually agreed.
Over the generations, Rukai hunters have reportedly observed that clouded leopards in the wild often leave their kill only partially eaten before leaving the food for scavenging black bears.
The above tale is the story told by southern Taiwan’s indigenous Rukai people as an explanation for why leopards seem to share their food with bears as well as why these animals look the way they do.
Taiwan’s Formosan Black Bear and Formosan Clouded Leopard are the island’s two most powerful hunters and feature prominently in traditional aboriginal symbolism and mythology. The conservation status of these beautiful creatures in the wild, however, is far less majestic than the tales about them.
In 2013, after a 13-year-long study by scientists, the Formosan Clouded Leopard was declared extinct. The last confirmed sighting of the leopard happened in the 1980s and there have been no official sightings of live individuals ever since. Extensive studies conducted since 2000 have attempted to find remaining wild populations. The investigations, however, yielded disappointing results.
The Formosan Black Bear is listed as a threatened species by the Taiwanese government and, excluding bears in captivity, their habitats are restricted to Taiwan’s remote central and eastern highlands.
Today, as one of the Four Asian Tigers, Taiwan boasts a strong and highly developed post-industrial economy. The environmental price paid for Taiwan’s prosperity, however, is high. As Taiwan’s unique wildlife species and their natural habitats become increasingly endangered and damaged, environmental issues are commanding an ever-increasing share of public attention.