Leopard Cat Conservation
Generic Name：Prionailurus bengalensis
Chinese name：石虎 (Shi Hu/ leopard cat )、山貓 (Shan Mao/Mountain cat)、金錢貓 (Jin chian mau/ Golden money cat)、華南豹貓 (Hua nan pao mao/South China leopard cat)
English name：leopard cat
Classification：CARNIVORA Felidae Prionailurus
The characteristics of leopard cats’ habitats
Prionailurus bengalensis is also known as “leopard cats” in English due to its beautiful leopard-like, flowery spotted pattern. In addition, some people think that the cats’ bodies’ spotty pattern resembles coins, hence the name Jin chian mau/ golden money cat. Another name it is known by is the “Shan Mao” or mountain cat. The size of the leopard cats is very similar to house cats, with the head-body length: 55-68cm, tail length: 27-32cm and weight: 3-6kg. In comparison to the house cats, the leopard cats has shorter muzzle, rounder ears, body colors that vary from dust to tawny color, brown black spots on the four limbs and tail. The tail is thick, short and fluffy. The 2 apparent vertical white lines extend to the forehead from the inside of the eye socket. On the back of the ears, there are white spots. The leopard cats have excellent night vision, high auditory acuity and well-developed canine teeth (dentition: 3/3, 1/1, 3/2, 1/1= 30).
The leopard cats’ ecological habitats
The leopard cats are regarded as the consumers, situated on the top of the food chain in the ecological habitats, which places effects on the organisms’ versatility and balance on the ecological niche, hence their important value for protection and the ecosystem. However, studies on leopard cats had only began in Taiwan in the past 10 years. Despite the ancient books of the Qing Dynasty having records of the existence or distribution of the leopard cats, such records only merely mentioned the name, pattern or utilizations. In accordance with the modern biological classification, Taiwan’s mammalian research began in 1862 by an article written by Robert Swinhoe: “On the mammals of the island of Formosa” (Ling-Ling Li& Liang-Kung Lin, 1992). Since 1895, the beginning of the Japanese occupation period, there were some Formosan mammals’ specimen collections and records, which consisted of records of the leopard cats, including morphological characteristics, shape measurements, ecological habitats and behaviors. Nonetheless, this evidence was limited.
Even at the end of year 1970, where wildlife scholar emerged, carrying out mammalian studies; their early stages only ever dwelled on rodent habitats, behaviors, harm and prevention. Later on, there were a gradual increase of the medium sized mammalian studies, but only studies limited to localized animal contain the emergence records of the leopard cats (Shin Wang et al., 1987; Shin Wang et al., 1988; Yao-Sung Lin et al., 1989; Ying Wang et al., 1988). Since 1988, Professor Jia-Chi Pei and investigator Mei-Ting Chen of National Pingtung University of Science and Technology Wildlife Conservation Institute initiated research on leopard cats in Taiwan’s southern shallow mountain area. They discovered that the leopard cats may have already become extinct in that local area. Since then, there had been specialized examinations focusing on felines, including the distribution of leopard cats.
Between 2005-2008, under the commission of Agriculture Committee Forestry Bureau, the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology Wildlife Conservation Institute conducted a study on carnivores in Hsinchu and Miaoli’s shallow mountain areas. As the leopard cats were key to the investigation, automatic camera devices, as well as radio tracking devices were applied to look into the distribution of the cats as well as various wild niches. The study outcomes revealed that the leopard cats mainly reside in the environments of grasslands, farmland and forests (Jia-Chi Pei& Mei-Ting Chen, 2008). The leopard cats are solitary animals, they are only in contact with other leopard cats for a short period of time during mating seasons.
Leopard Cat Conservation
In Taiwan, the leopard cats can reproduce all year round, but the reproduction peak is during late winter and early spring. After mating and reproduction, the male and female leopard cats will part, leaving the female in charge of raising the young. Even so, within the activity range of a leopard cat, there will always be other leopard cat around. They mark their existence to others via glands and urine, leaving their scent on the tree trunks, particularly in high ridges within forests’ flat areas. - This way, direct conflict with other leopard cats can be avoided or alternatively, assisting them in finding mating partners. Each leopard cat can give birth to 1-3 babies, with an average of 2 babies. Juvenile leopard cats will leave their mother and live independently 5-6 months after their birth.
Despite leopard cats having a small sized body, according to the radio tracking device, their activity range is still relatively larger compare to other carnivores of similar sizes such as civets and crab-eating mongooses. The male leopard cats’ activity range is between 6-9 km2, while the female is around 2 km2. Due to the large activity range, its adaptation and numbers is greatly affected by the destruction of its habitat (Mei-Ting Chen, 2015). The leopard cats are generally active at night, with peak activities in the early morning and evening. Occasionally they are active in the morning. The activity range is based in woodland, grassland, and even farmland (Mei-Ting Chen, 2015).
The leopard cats are generally active at night, with peak activities in the early morning and evening. Occasionally they are active in the morning. The activity range is based in woodland, grassland, and even farmland (Mei-Ting Chen, 2015). Small species of rodents from forests, grassland and even farmland, including squirrels, brown country rats, house mice, Formosan mice, Striped Field Mouse, Formosan hares, red-bellied tree squirrels, shrews and others are all preyed upon by leopard cats. Besides mammals, leopard cats also eat birds, reptiles (such as lizards and snakes) and insects as food sources (Wan-Chi Juang, 2012). This is why leopard cats are regarded as predators on top of the shallow mountain ecological system, as well as a key species closely connected the integrity of its niche. In particular, leopard cats play an important role in controlling rat numbers. Nowadays, losses caused by rats impact on agricultural crops or causing the spread of disease, inflicting threats to human health have all pointed to the fact that there is a need for people to value the crucial functions of leopard cats in the natural environment.
As general public often mistaken leopard cats as being animals unique to Taiwan, yet, the leopard cat is the most extensively one that distributed in Asia among the small feline species. The distribution may range from Heilongjiang River Basin in the Sino-Russian border in of Northeast Asia, Japan (Subspecies: Tsushima leopard cats and Iriomote cat), Korea; all the way south to China, Taiwan, Hainan Island, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar; to Southeast Asia’s Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia; and East to India, Kashmir and North of Pakistan (Refer to the figure below). Although the leopard cats are able to survive in various different habitats, including ones heavily impacted by humans, such as man-made forests, secondary forests and farmlands. The main decline in their overall population was due to their capturing for use; in particular, fur exchanges.
Leopard Cat Conservation
China is considered the main exporting country of leopard cat’s furs. According to the literature, 230,000 were captured in 1963, reaching the highest count. Both years 1980 and 1981, a yearly count of over 200,000 leopard cats was caught. The meeting held by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group in year 1989 had reported that the Chinese Government raised a leopard cat capturing quota of 150,000 leopard cats per annual (Sunquist& Sunquist, 2002). In Sumatra, the leopard cats are not yet under any threat of fur or meat transactions, but the young ones are often captured and raised as pets (Santiapllai& Supraham, 1985). Moreover, in the past 10 years, humans have had a massive effect over the leopard cats’ habitat by reduction, damage and fragmentation of natural niche due to environmental development and utilization; as well as other phenomena created by road development, such as road kills, poaching, and the introduction of foreign species. (Izawa et al., 2009; Rajaratnam et al., 2007; Rho, 2009).
With the relatively wide distribution of leopard cats, there is little research and information on their conditions. From the limited resources gathered, in Thailand, the numbers of leopard cats were still relatively common (Lekagul& McNeely, 1977). On the other hand, the numbers in Bangladesh was already on a gradual diminishing trend (Khan, 1985). Numbers in India was also decreasing, reaching a “vulnerable” state (Panwar, 1984). The ready limited numbers in the Heilongjiang area of Sino-Russian border Amur was likely to face extinction (Heptner& Sludskii, 1992). The study of the Iriomote cat, a subtype resides on the Iriomote Island of Japan with a population of only 100, has been one of the longer studies in Japan up to date. In addition, the Tsushima leopard cat, decreased in number from 200-300 in the year 1967 to 83-115 in the year 2005. Both sub-species are classified by the Japanese Government as Endangered species/subspecies. Iriomote cat is currently listed by the IUCN Red List as “Endangered subspecies” (Izawa et al., 2009). In Korea, the leopard cats are listed under the Wildlife Conservation Act as “Endangered Species Type II” (Rho, 2009).
The Formosan leopard cats are one of the 12 sub-species of Asian leopard cats. According to the early literatures, the leopard cats were commonly dispersed on the low altitudes over the entire Taiwan (Kano, 1929, 1930; Jian-Shan Chen,1956). Since then, the area of distribution had decreased to only some local areas all over Taiwan (McCullough, 1974). The more recently updated data are only restricted to Miaoli County, Taichung City and Nantou County (Jia-Chi Pei & Mei-Ting Chen, 2008; Bo-ren Jiang et al., 2015; Jian-Nan- Liou et al., 2016). Despite Chiayi County and Tainan County still have records from 10-20 years back; they have not had any updates for many years, indicating the deterioration of distribution range over the years, to the verge of critical state. In the evidence provided from distribution estimates from the current leopard cats’ habitats, there are only at 354–524 leopard cats at present (Bo- ren Jiang, 2015). The Executive Yuan Agricultural Committee had an uplift of the leopard cats classification from “Preciously rare” to “Near extinction” protective animals (Class 1).
The earliest research studies specifically on leopard cats’ habitats and distribution were done on the lower mountain areas of Hsinchu and Miaoli. The results from years 2005-2008 had indicated that, within Miaoli, apart from the Zhunan Town (located at the most Northwest, neighboring to the ocean) Nanzhuang Township (East side of the mountainous area) and Taian Township showed no records of leopard cats, the other town and townships all have records in the recent 10 years. These areas are considered to be the most stable zones for the remaining clusters in Taiwan. Among the places mentioned, the popular spots where clusters of leopard cats appear are south of Houlong, passing the Xihu Township, from Tongsiao Township to Yuanli Township; heading East passing Tongluo Township, Sanyi Township, and Dahu Township to Zhuolan Town’s shallow mountains. However, the distribution hot spots remain on the areas of private lands. No records were discovered in the Hsinchu areas (Jia-Chi Pei& Mei-Ting Chen, 2008).
Since 2015, under the support from the Nantou Forest Management Office of the Forest Service, Chiayi University and Chi-Chi Endemic Biological Research Center carried out a 2-year leopard cats cluster investigation. The outcome demonstrated 67 sample points recorded images the leopard cats in the 10 towns and townships below 1000m height above sea level, notably in Chichi, Chungliao and peripheral areas as their main distribution (Jian-Nan Liou et al., 2016).
Based on the local survey results from Taichung city, the shallow mountains in east Taichung, northern most areas from Houli, Dongshi) and passing to southern area via Beitun, Hsinshe junction area to Taiping and Wufong band like zone, are the range where leopard cats appear. The leopard cat clusters of Taichung city towards the northern clusters (Miaoli) and the southern clusters (Nantou) play a vital role in terms of connections and gene interactions. Therefore, one of the conservation actions of Taichung focuses on the strength of connection for the leopard cats to interact safely as an independent body and to have gene interaction among the clusters. As stated in the current statistics, the Daan River is a possible barrier towards the leopard cats’ “exchange bridge” that connects Miaoli and Taichung (from Houli to Dongshi). However, the blocking effect of Daan River is restricted to rainy seasons. The Wu River is considered as the blockade of Taichung and Nantou leopard cats’ “exchange bridge” (Wufong section). Such blocking effect is also restricted to rainy seasons. The blocking effect within the Taichung area by Houli District to Shigang District and Dajia River of Fengyuan District; Taiwan number 3 Highway from Fengyuan to Dungshi; broken woodland and the discontinuity of the natural habitats in Fengyuan and Shigang had become the greatest bottleneck for the potential bridge for the leopard cats. These are the areas in which the Taichung City should focus on when they work on the conservation.
The threats which the leopard cats face
The leopard cats are facing many threats where they have to constantly adapt to rapid changes and migrate away from the areas with human obstructions. As the leopard cats mainly reside in the low mountain ranges and hilly areas (shallow mountain areas) where human activities are high. Many of such areas are privately owned. In the recent years, the increasing severity of land development, agricultural development, grazing, deforestation, road development and other human interference, has led to shrinkage, fragmentation and downgrades in quality of the of the original suitable habitats.
The harm generated by customary agriculture in lowering the habitat quality and life threat is common and widespread. Amongst them, the usage of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and rodenticides’ effect on the leopard cats are inestimable. Nevertheless, the accumulations of the toxin inside the rats’ bodies and the reduction in rat numbers all have direct or indirect consequences on the leopard cats’ survival. The recent toxin tests on the 6 road killed leopard cats discovered all of them contained low concentrations of rodenticides remaining in the livers. In particular, 5 of their stomachs tested positive for pesticides (Chen, Unpublished documents; Jia-Chi Pei, Unpublished documents).
Secondary factors such as over hunting, poisoning and shooting due to human-leopard cats conflicts and hunting for particular market demands are occasionally being reported in some local areas. As the residents of shallow mountain area are custom to raising domestic birds, many of the people in the local areas own variable sized mountain pheasant farms. As such, many public perceived leopard cats, like any other carnivores, as pests, where they may invade the bird coop and prey on the domestic birds, causing economic losses. Investigations in of the leopard cats in the Miaoli areas revealed a yearly 2-3% of farmers will remove the leopard cats moving about in the vicinity on a retaliatory basis via toxin or hunting (St. John et al., 2015). The overall estimate of yearly leopard cats’ deaths can range from tens to hundreds, indicating exhausting social habitat.
Additionally, road kill is one of the known reasons for immediate death of the leopard cats. In reality, plane countryside roads with a width over 5m (namely township roads being classified as industrial roads, country road and provincial roads) will result in movement barriers or even deaths for the leopard cats (Chen et al., 2016). The road structure will hinder animal dispersal and migration, especially with leopard cats that are already low in numbers and have a large activity range, or animals with multiple habitats. These animals generally have a particular requirement for their niche in terms of characteristic and size, which explains the higher death rate if they have to cross the fragmented landscapes by roads. Road constructions and widening not only reduces the availability of land for leopard cats to utilize, but also destruct the integrity of their niche, leading to extinction of endangered species. Simultaneously, the generation of roads brings more human activities (pollutions, noises, pets, foreign species, and more human activities), inflecting variable obstructions and shock on their living environments, as well as causing the spread of disease, competition, hunting and other problems.
Finally, other threats which the leopard cats face include food competition, predation, and transmittable diseases brought about by domesticated dogs and cats (including stray dogs, cats, wild dogs and cats). Many international studies had pointed out that the act of cat hunting is a major threat toward wild animals, and a direct resource competition among native predators for the same food source. Presently, Taiwan lacks data in this area of investigation. A study that targets the predation by domestic cats on wild animals in the Pingtung shallow mountain areas had discovered their main prey is small mammalian animals. The second being birds, reptiles and insects. The research in the Miaoli Tongsiao area report showed that domestic cats mainly prey on insects, and secondly on small mammalian animals and birds. Based on these two data points, we can conclude that the domestic cats in shallow mountain areas have overlapping feeding habits with leopard cats. Hence in seasons or areas where there is a lack of small mammalian animals, there is a potential hidden threat to leopard cats. In terms of diseases, research has shown that the Miaoli area wild carnivores had a higher risk of infected with canine distemper, amongst the data, the positive rate for leopard cats were as high as 77.8%. Canine distemper is infectious among almost all the carnivorous species, which may lead to serious illness and subsequent deaths. The primary source of this infection is local domestic dogs. Considering both domestic cats and dogs are perceived as carnivores, the two foreign species are deemed to be great risks of infectious sources for other carnivores and leopard cats in the local areas.
According to the recent field investigation and relevant outcomes from studies, the level of threats in which the leopard cats face can be categorized into the following groups:
- Reduction and fragmentation in the habitats due to man-made developments.
- Deaths and habitat quality reduction due to pesticides and toxins used by the farming industries.
- Hunting and poisoning due to conflicts between human and the leopard cats.
- Barrier and road kills due to road constructions.
- Illegal hunting and poisoning due to particular market demands.
- Hunting, spreading of diseases, hidden competitions for food and resources due to foreign cats and dogs.
- Poor social habitat due to general public dislike and concepts of regarding leopard cats as a hindrance towards local development.