Web lecture: Leopard Cats In Singapore: Surprising discoveries in our forests, but are they here to stay?

I did a web lecture for the Singapore Wildcat Action Group on 4 Jul 2020 about leopard cats in Singapore. The talk summarises what we know about the last wildcat remaining in the city state including its ecology, population genetics, threats (chiefly habitat loss and road mortality), and what can be done to ensure their survival.

The video was recorded and available here:

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.

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.

Q: How big is a leopard cat?

One of the first question people ask when talking with them about leopard cats is “how big is a leopard cat?”.

Probably because it carries the name of its much larger cousin, most people think they are powerful, ferocious wild cats that can endanger human lives. That is what I would like to imagine too—that I am stalking a large, ferocious beast—as my Facebook profile suggests.

In actual fact, the leopard cat is sized more like a slender domestic cat, with slight variation, depending on sex (males ~10% larger) and where they are found. Here in tropical Southeast Asia, they have a head-body length of 40–55 cm, a 23–29 cm tail and weigh 1–5 kg. I have made a comparative image below for better visualisation.

A Singapore leopard cat next to a 1.8 m tall male human being for scale.

Elsewhere, they do get bigger. As leopard cats have a rather large range from temperate Russia to Indonesia, the Bergmann’s rule, which states that within a species, individuals get larger with increasing latitude, is observed. In the northern part of their range (northeastern Russia and China), leopard cats can attain a head-body length of 75 cm, with a 31.5 cm tail and weigh up to 7 kg.

Still, despite my best efforts in conjuring metaphors and managing expectations, a common refrain from many of my field assistants after seeing one is “I thought it would be slightly bigger”. Makes me feel slightly hurt.

Leopard cats in Singapore

The leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) is a small spotted wild cat (up to 106.5 cm total length; 0.5–7.1 kg) found in South and East Asia. They are solitary, living in forest, wooded areas and rural plantations. Though fairly widespread and common in other parts its range, little is known about it regionally. In Singapore, leopard cats are so rarely sighted that they were once thought to be locally extinct on the main island and likely to be at the brink of national extinction. But this did not always use to be the case.

From the 1800s till 1920s, leopard cats were not uncommon in the jungles of Singapore. However, due to rapid development and forest loss after World War II, their numbers declined and the last sighting on the main island occurred in 1968.

For a long time, there were no confirmed sightings until 1997, when one leopard cat was found trapped in a fishing net on Pulau Ubin. Their presence on Pulau Tekong, another off-shore island, was confirmed by an NUS researcher, Norman Lim, in 2005. On the main island, however, their occurrence were sadly only recorded from two road kills in 2001 and 2007.

A leopard cat on the cover of the Singapore Red Data Book (second edition).

Today, the leopard cat is the only native wild cat alive in Singapore and is nationally critically endangered. This project aims to find out more about the ecology of the cat where it still exists, with the hopes of ensuring its long term survival in the country.