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

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.

Black leopard cat in Sunderbans and subsequent mangled news

Was alerted about this story of the mysterious black cat of the Sunderbands from TetZoo’s tweet. Apparently, a small black cat was recorded by camera traps in the Sunderbands protected area in India and this news was then picked up and mangled an international news agency.

The original report by Times of India and more details that were subsequently published were clear enough. A small, black cat “bigger than a wild cat and smaller than a leopard”, with a long tail was photographed in the Sunderbands and this puzzled scientists enough for them to think that there is possibility that it may be a new species. No photos of the said cat were published, although one showing a fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) and leopard cat was shown.

Image in original article showing a fishing cat (above) and leopard cat (below) instead. Source: Times of India/WWF-India.

This is newsy because no known cats in that area meet those descriptions. Melanistic (black) forms of cats such as the leopard (Panthera pardus) and Asiatic golden cat (Pardofelis temminckii) do not occur in that area. Scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India then identified it as a black leopard cat, with tail proportion being an important identification character. I find this most interesting as black or melanistic forms of the leopard cat have never been recorded. Discounting bad lighting, a small black cat that resembles a leopard cat may possibly be a leopard cat with a mutated coat colour gene, something else unknown to science, or simply a skinny black domestic cat. This is probably why they are now excited as to how many of such cats exist and if it is a genetic mutation or a new species.

However, this news was picked up by International Business Times, which reported “Bangladesh Sunderbans Wildlife Survey Finds New Species of Leopard“. They also called it a “never before seen big cat” in the article, although a conflicting description of it as a small cat also appears. Adding to the confusion was the file photo and video containing a melanistic leopard (Panthera pardus). The video is now all over the Internet.

International Business Times report. Source: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk

In my opinion, the International Business Times could have avoided the mistake with a science-trained journalist or if the journalist sent the article or details for fact verification before publishing. On the other hand, why were the original camera trap photos not shown? Perhaps the Sunderbans researchers are embargoing the pictures till publication, but until that happens and a specimen is found, a black leopard cat will still remain a cryptozoological animal.


Camera trap pictures of the cats. Source: WWF-India.

From TetZoo through LordGeekington, camera trap photos are apparently online and shows a heavily blotched leopard cat which also brings to mind some dark bengal cats (domestic cat x leopard cat hybrid). If the images are not flipped, it seems that at least two individuals exist. I wonder if leopard cats with darker coats have a selective advantage in the Sunderbans, and if the trait is heriditary, may lead to more of such cats appearing.