Leopard cat (and other rainforest biodiversity) art by Loy Xingwen

I was brought to the attention to this artwork of Loy Xingwen by a colleague of mine, Jeremy Yeo.

Leopard cat by Loy Xingwen

Leopard cat by Loy Xingwen

This series of illustrations, including this beautiful leopard cat, was made using PowerPoint (Microsoft Corporation, Washington – [with ref. to this in Science]). PowerPoint! While the rest of us are struggling with re-sizing AutoShapes,  he is creating these sleek layered and shaded masterpieces. He has kindly given permission for his artwork to be reproduced here.

Accompanying the image is a write up:

This beautiful animal was once believed to be national extinct but a recent study has found that they are definitely still hanging on. Win! Nevertheless, they remain critically endangered in Singapore. Here, they are mainly threatened by the clearing of forests. The leopard cat is similar in size to a domestic cat and is a predator, hunting small animals such as rats, lizards and birds. Needless to say, it is very elusive and rarely seen.”

Xingwen is a plant ecologist at the University of Queensland, and started this project to raise awareness about Singapore’s natural heritage through his art. See the rest of the planned 40 rainforest biodiversity of Singapore art at his Facebook album here.

New publication: Density, spatiotemporal use and diet of the leopard cat in a human-modified succession forest of Singapore

Our publication on Density, spatiotemporal use and diet of the leopard cat in a human-modified succession forest of Singapore is out in Mammal Research.

I will not reproduce the abstract here, but a TLDR summary is that leopard cat population density and occurrence is higher in oil palm areas next to secondary forest compared to within secondary forest on the island of Pulau Tekong, Singapore. In the oil palm areas, they were completely nocturnal and ate more rats compared to elsewhere on the island, where they had more diurnal activity and hunted more birds, insects and lizards. These finding suggest that leopard cats are oil palm adapters that take advantage of the rich prey resource in the oil palm area.

Some thoughts:

  1. Am glad that this came out between the education manager job that I was initially assigned with at the natural history museum, the massive museum move, and sperm whale carcass salvage operation that took place. I also feel incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to work on something that I had always wanted to do. Most of this fell in place because of the people who made it possible. Majority of this work was done on an island that is out of bounds to the public, and I am hoping to have the privilege to be back for some follow up work.
  2. Being relatively early and inexperienced in the research and publishing circuit, I went with the kitchen sink approach for the manuscript. Eventually, a weaker component eventually got the axe with the almost unequivocal agreement of 4 reviewers. So the lesson learnt is that telling a succinct story with the best data is something I need to work on.
  3. In this study we almost quantified the obvious—someone has to do that—to answer basic ecology questions. One finding was that Pulau Tekong has the highest population density of leopard cats of any study done till date (89.4 ind./100 km2). However, leopard cats in Singapore remain nationally critically endangered. Not surprising because Singapore is tiny, and the suitable habitats for the species are limited and fragmented. These will be crucial in ensuring the long term survival of the species here.
  4. We recorded leopard cats on reclaimed land for the first time in the world. This is novel habitat created from the sea by filling it with sand. Secondary succession took over and leopard cats colonised it. Pretty neat (but marine habitat destruction in land creation). As the reclaimed part was separated from the original island by a channel, I remember telling my survey team, “we are just going to put up cameras and do transects to prove they [leopard cats] are not here…”. Happy to be proven wrong by data and these resilient little beasts.

Leopard cat on RL

Publication updates and leopard cat featured in a children’s book

Some updates and news regarding leopard cats in Singapore:

Our first international peer-reviewed publication from the leopard cat study has been accepted in Mammal Research. Look out for it soon.

Meanwhile, I was asked to contribute some sighting records to Singapore Biodiversity Records of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum earlier this year:

1. Chua, M.A.H. 2015. Leopard cat in Western Catchment Area. Singapore Biodiversity Records 2015: 6. [PDF]
2. Chua, M.A.H. 2015. Leopard cat in Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Singapore Biodiversity Records 2015: 20. [PDF]

Was pleasant surprised when I was informed that the leopard cat is featured in a children’s book, Timmy and Tammy Discover Singapore’s Wildlife Wonders by Hwee Goh. Had worked with the author to facilitate another section of the book about the natural history museum, and was glad when she informed me that she was featuring the leopard cat. The book is available in book stores now, and is a good introduction to wildlife in Singapore for children.

SWW - leopard cat

Page excerpt from Timmy & Tammy Discover Singapore’s Wildlife Wonders by Hwee Goh.


Leopard cats in the news: illegal wildlife trade

It was a busy semester with teaching and other duties, but I managed to somehow squeeze in a conference, and two stakeholder talks (NParks and Wildlife Reserves Singapore) amid the rush.

Leopard cat news appeared several times during the 2nd half of the year, and the two compiled below are those that I remember. The first was most memorable as I showed the embedded video in class and discussed it with my students of Environment and Civil Society of Singapore. The other is more recent, and more grisly. Both show the need to combat illegal wildlife trade in the region.


Sun bear, barn owls and civet [and leopard cat] among wildlife seized from two brothers

Here, a leopard cat and other species were trafficked online and perpetrators were busted by Malaysian wildlife officers. Most of the animals were still alive when the offenders were caught. Hopefully they make it back to the wild safe.

People in Malaysia can report illegal wildlife trade by calling 019-3564194. The hotline is managed by an alliance involving Traffic, Malayan Nature Society, WCS Malaysia and WWF Malaysia.


Myanmar a gateway for illegal trade in tiger and other wild cats to China

In Myanmar, Traffic reported that the trade in wild cat parts to China has increased by more than three folds, while trade to Thailand has seen a five-fold decrease. It is a bit of a bittersweet revelation from a recent publication by Nijman and Shepherd.

In the markets surveyed, the leopard cat was the second most commonly traded wild cat species, with 458 individuals from 11 surveys. Parts traded included whole skin, skin parts, skull/head and paws. The clouded leopard was the most commonly traded species.

Such trade may have an impact on wild population, and is particularly worrying for the tiger (4th most commonly traded), which is endangered. The authors recommend increased enforcement and cooperation between governments to combat this illegal trade.

Dead leopard cat sold at the market of Mong La. Photo by Vincent Nijman

Dead leopard cat sold at the market of Mong La. Photo by Vincent Nijman

ST Forum letter: Benefits of having wildlife in our midst

Read the local Sunday paper’s (Sunday Times) commentary on 13 Apr 2014 about the coexistence of wildlife with humans in urban areas in India and North America, and was inspired to reply with a local perspective. The paper has a listed average circulation of 449,200 and a readership of 1.43 million, so I figured it could be a nice way to reach some of the english paper-reading populace.

So armed with an opinion, I got active with a word processor. Had to slip in a reference to the leopard cat of course. After some professional editing, this ensued and was published on the Sunday Times 20 Apr 2014:

The published letter. Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited.

The published letter. Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited.

Hopefully the letter would lend a little voice to carnivorans and other wildlife in Singapore.

Leopard cats in the news: human-wildlife conflict and poaching/pet trade

Leopard cats appeared on my news radar twice during the last fortnight and both for rather unfortunate reasons. While the leopard cat is considered by the IUCN as a species of least concern with regards to the risk of extinction, their apparent preference for open forest and human-modified habitats often puts them in the harms way of people. Both reports are fairly common examples of what I have read about, heard or seen in the Southeast Asian region:

Human-wildlife conflict

The first, Cat-ching farmer by surprise, reported by The Star on 31 Dec 2013, was a human-wildlife conflict issue where, Malaysian poultry farmer, Mohd Izham Hussin, found many of his chickens going missing until he set a trap and caught a leopard cat in it. The farmer was said to have lost about 70 chickens over a period of two months before the leopard cat was caught. He eventually handed the animal over to the Wildlife Department, saying that it “would have been cruel to kill the cat just for eating about 70 of his chickens”.

Leopard cat caught by Mohd Izham Hussin in Peninsular Malaysia. Photo: The Star.

Leopard cat caught by Mohd Izham Hussin in Peninsular Malaysia. Photo: The Star.

As leopard cats are able to live in some types of human-modified habitat with vegetation cover, their proximity to humans can often lead to conflict if poultry or small livestock and pets become part of the leopard cat’s diet. Personally, I have been told of how a villager’s chickens and rabbits were killed and eaten by a leopard cat in Singapore in the old days. Indeed, Harrison in his book An Introduction to Mammals of Singapore and Malaya (1966) noted that the species can be a “notorious chicken-thief”.

Most people’s perception of human-wildlife conflicts often involve big animals like elephants or tigers, but small carnivores such as small wild cats, civets and otters have their share as well. In many cases, these animals end up being persecuted by people.

Even though leopard cats in Singapore may not get into similar conflicts these days with people, I think this incident is a lesson worth learning from – that Mohd Izham Hussin spared the animal despite the threat it had on his livelihood. I am trying to contact Mr Mohd Izham Hussin through the journalist so see if there is a way to help.

Poaching and leopard cats in the pet trade

The second report on Rare leopard cats sold for $2,000 on social media appeared on the Borneo Bulletin, 14 Jan 2014. It was stated that leopard cats have been sold as pets online in Brunei, and are a target for poachers for their pelt.

Quite similar to the songbird’s curse of its beautiful song, leopard cats, owing to their attractive appearance, are prized as exotic pets and for the fur industry. They are also used to breed a domestic cat hybrid called the Bengal. For these reasons, some pet stores and markets in the region, such as Indonesia and Myanmar, stock them rather openly. As most of these animals are likely to be sourced from the wild, hunting could eventually be an issue for the species in some areas.

It is important to note that the leopard cat is listed as a CITES Appendix II species in most countries, meaning that international trade in leopard cats is illegal. Also, most wild animals do not make good pets as they may be untameable and have strict diets that cannot be fulfilled in captive conditions, i.e., they belong to the wild.

Although it is not clear if the leopard cat that was reportedly put on sale for $2,000 was rescued, it appears that the Universiti Brunei Darussalam wildlife club, 1stopbrunei Wildlife, has rescued and returned leopard cats and other wild animal back to wild. In addition, the club also conducts talks and field trips for school to spread awareness for wildlife protection.

A leopard cat rescued by Universiti Brunei Darussalam wildlife club, 1stopbrunei Wildlife. Photo: M Shavez Cheema.

A leopard cat rescued by Universiti Brunei Darussalam wildlife club, 1stopbrunei Wildlife. Photo: M Shavez Cheema.

In the end, although both news articles have rather unfortunate beginnings, both also have silver linings: one with a poultry farmer who decided not to kill the trapped leopard cat, and the other, a wildlife club doing good work to rescue wild animals and spread awareness for wildlife protection. I think we can certainly be heartened that there are many in the wildlife conservation movement out there.

A kind supporter of this leopard cat research in Singapore

Last week, I received a note from John Sha (WRS) that Mandy Jones of Cats for Africa had made a donation in support of this leopard cat research work though the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund.

I am touched by her kind gesture and for raising awareness about leopard cat conservation in Singapore, and felid conservation in Asia through her Facebook page. It was also a pleasant surprise to see that leopard cats were featured as their project of the month, which highlights threats to wild cats around the world, and the research and conservation work that scientists and conservation managers are doing for these species.

This cover image taken from Mandy’s Felidae – The Wild Cat Family Facebook page, features the beautiful artwork of members of the leopard cat lineage by Rochelle Mason and Linda duPois-Rosen.

A huge thank you to Mandy for your efforts!

We are in the phase of wrapping up the project, completing field work and analyses, and moving on to writing up the findings. There will certainly be updates to come and interesting findings to share. Watch this space.

Crowdsourcing: Make no bones about it

This leap frogs a few Doing the dirty job posts, but I think the following story is worth sharing and compelling enough to stand on its own.

Right now, I have extracted DNA from the collected scats, analysed the genetic information, and moved on to washing out the scats for prey remains to determine the diet of leopard cats in Singapore. Most of the remains are hair, bones, feathers, scales and exoskeleton.

A day in the office: typical crime scene.

However, here comes the problem: I belong to the generation of biologists with comparative anatomy and mophology swapped out from our curriculum in favour of cell biology and molecular genetics — therefore, not too good at identifying animal bits at all. To compensate though, I did a fair bit of reading up on hair and skeleton before starting.

Bones are a little more tricky than hair (which I have a reference collection of), but excellent diagrams help a lot. Every now and then, strange things pop up, but are usually relatively easy to resolve.

After more than 30 samples, something odd appeared that I have yet to encounter. It was a bone fragment that looked like a product of two fused bones. Unfortunately, it was not complete, otherwise it may have been easier to identify. So there it started: the case of the mystery bone.

I had my suspicions of what it may be, but I also needed to know where to look and had no comparative material for skeletons. The Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research collection is closed to prepare for the move to its new premises, and I did not want to be a nuisance to the collections manager. So, knowing that Twitterverse is full of accomplished workers in the field of science, I decided to try crowdsourcing to get more experienced/expert opinion in bone identification:

In a nutshell, I must say I was humbled by the responses and the helpful scientists on twitter.  Full story and final reveal on the mysterious bone below.

N.B.: Some tweets may have been lost if tags have been changed or if they are of a different time series.

Read more

Camera Trap Tool Tip: Trap Duration Calculator

An important measure when analysing camera trap data is the trapping effort of each camera trap and the total for a study. This is typically measured in number of trap nights, usually defined as a continuous 24-hour period when a camera trap is set to be active. The information can then be used for other analysis, such as mark-recapture to estimate population size.

As my camera traps are in the field for long periods of time, I like to be able to visualise the camera trap data graphically to track patterns more easily. To do this, I create a master map to visualise how long each trap is active and on which days leopard cats were recorded at each site. This is done with Microsoft Excel to plot dates and shade cells with colour codes when traps were active and when leopard cats were recorded. This also allows me to summarise camera trap effort.

Visual representation of camera trap data

However, being poor in math, calculation of camera trap effort is a real challenge. Imagine the pain of calculating camera trap effort for a time period between 5 Oct 2012 4:42pm to 2 Dec 2012 1:10am! For this, I am glad there are tools which other camera trap practitioners may also find useful.

Web calculator

Timeanddate.com has a web-based time duration calculator that allows the user to enter start and end date and time. Saves time.

Date and time duration calculator from timeanddate.com

Excel alternative

A non-web based alternative is to use this Excel formula: =INT(B2-A2)&””
Where depending on format, A2 is the start date and time [e.g., dd/mm/yyyy hh:mm] and B2 is the end date and time.

Good ole Excel

My poor brain is thankful for all these things.

A Famous Leopard Cat

Dropped by the neighbourhood library to check out their natural history collection and came across The Malaysian Rainforest Realm – Fascinating Facts in Q&A by Ismail & Ghazally. What caught my eye was an uncredited photograph of a leopard cat featured in the book:

The Malaysian Rainforest Realm. Copyright of text and photos from the book belongs to the authors and publisher.

It was quite odd to see the little leopard cat mis-identified as a much larger clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), but what was more surprising was that I actually know this leopard cat!

That is Boss, one of three leopard cats from the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari that I spent about 20 hours observing in 2008. The idea was to build a search image for the cats and try to understand their behaviour better when I am in the field. It was also then that I learnt how to distinguish individual leopard cats. Hence, I could recognise Boss immediately at first glance.

Boss was the dominant one, padding around his enclosure with a self-assured air, and often ejecting his enclosure mate from their favoured perch and sleeping site. A search in Flickr and Google images also reveals Boss to be one of the most photographed captive leopard cats in the world.

Boss the leopard cat by Dbillian on 1 Jan 2010 (L) and Letisha81 on 15 May 2010 (R).

Unfortunately, the last photograph of him on the photo sharing site was dated October 2010, and recent photos of leopard cats in the Singapore Zoo shows a different cat. At that time, Boss must be over 15 years old and considered a geriatric cat.

It is somewhat amusing that a book on Malaysian rainforest published in Malaysia would use a photo of a captive leopard cat from the Singapore Zoo. But no matter, Boss is one famous cat, and while it is best to see an animal truly wild and free, it was a joy watching him and learning about his kind.

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