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.

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.

Doing the dirty job – part 1

Tracking rare and elusive wild carnivores can be challenging as there are not that many of them to begin with and they are mostly shy and tend to move about a lot. Fortunately, there is an easier way to study these animals as they tend to leave behind clues of their presence which tend to be more permanent. One important clue I seek out is scat, i.e. their droppings.

Other than a sign post that says “I was here”, scats are after all, the end products of digestion and can reveal what an animal has been eating. Although it is not as as clear as looking at stomach contents like what I did in my previous post, undigested remains such as bones, hair and feathers can still be used to identify the food items. Furthermore, the surface of each piece of scat may have rubbed off an animal’s digestive tract and picked up cells on the way out. These cells contain DNA which when extracted and analysed, can be used to identify species (with an algorithm called BLAST) and individuals.

Fuzzy bits of fur can be seen coming off the scat.

It is not difficult to identify leopard cat scats in the field as they tend to lay them along the trails, possibly for scent/territorial marking purposes. Like domestic cat droppings, they are typically about 1.5 to 2 cm in diameter and around 10 to 15 cm long, sometimes in fragmented pieces. One end is usually rounded, and the other ends in a pointy twirl, often with some hair.

There are usually no plant parts, but sometimes a bit of grass are present.

Fresh leopard cat scat usually appears to be in various shades of brown and have a distinctive musky smell. Old scats turn white due to the amount of calcium present.

Aged white scat.

Scat that is found is collected in a sealable plastic bag and then frozen at -80o C to preserve the DNA. I cannot wait to start analysis on the 33 pieces of scat that I have amassed since the start of the project.

Other researchers in Singapore who have been successful with finding out more about diet or genetics with scat are those done on the common palm civetsmooth-coated otter and banded leaf monkey.

A story the dead cat told

In the debut post, I wrote about how two road kills in 2001 and 2007 were the only verifiable evidence that leopard cats still exist on mainland Singapore. In fact, every carcass tells a story and are valuable to scientists and natural history museums (footnote 1). This post is about the story that a dead cat told.

The value of a carcass is that each one is record of the presence of a species at a location and it provides important clues about its biology. In studying a carcass, scientists can tell its sex, age, determine the cause of death and even its last meal! Even the tissue is valuable for the DNA that can be extracted.

Mandai 2001 road kill. Photo by Charith Pelpola.

The story so far: The road kill on 11 Jun 2001 was reported by Charith Pelpola, a kind member of the public who recognised it as a leopard cat and passed it to my current supervisor, Mr N. Sivasothi, who was then working at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR). The body of the animal was examined, measured and preserved by Siva, while the internal organs were stored separately with the foresight that someone may study them one day. And that was where I came into the picture.

Kelvin (left) and Siva (right) preparing the specimen in 2001. Photo from Habitat News.

Preserved specimen of Mandai road kill at RMBR.

Last year (2011 – exactly 10 years later), deep  in the bowels of RMBR prep room known affectionally as “The Dungeon”, I finally got the chance to examine the gut of the 2001 leopard cat road kill.

On first inspection, the twisted tubes of cat gut sitting in a jar of formalin looked harmless enough from the outside and that did not prepare me fully for the decade of funk that it emitted when it was poured out. Sorting out the party-digested mix of chyme, fur and feathers was like assembling an exciting but morbid jig-saw puzzle. Kelvin Lim, the museum’s collection manager, was as excited as I was in identifying the contents of the leopard cat’s last meal.

Me trying to solve the jig-saw. Photo by Kelvin Lim.

After about an hour and a half, it was done. We now know the prey items of one leopard cat in Singapore. The contents included 1) a mammal – rat (Rattus sp.), 2) a bird – red legged crake (Rallina fasciata) and 3) a lizard – many-lined sun skink (Eutropis multifasciatus).

Remains of a rat. Feet and fur can be clearly seen.

Remains of a red legged-crake. Black and white barred, and chestnut-coloured feathers, and the red feet are obvious.

Remains of a many-lined sun skink.

In short, the leopard cat carcass told us that on 11 Jun 2001, an adult male leopard cat that just ate a rat, bird and lizard met its demise as it was hit by a vehicle as it was crossing a road in Mandai. The preserved carcass and separated gut contents are now stored in RMBR, where it would be one of over 500,000 specimens of value for research and education.

Footnote 1: To report a road kill, call the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at 6516 5082 or email rmbr@nus.edu.sg. A photo or description of the animal, its general condition and detailed location would be most useful.

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