- The Western Ghats population of leopard cats is isolated and genetically different from the rest of the world, according to research. The temperature threshold of the species may have led to its absence in Central India.
- Despite being abundantly found in most parts of India, leopard cats face multiple threats from roadkills, snaring and hunting to indiscriminate use of pesticides in crop fields and future climate change scenarios.
- The information on this wildcat species in India is largely limited to isolated density estimates from various protected areas which is not enough as they are found in a variety of habitats.
A small wildcat species, the leopard cat is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, which means it is not of immediate conservation concern. The species, however, is exposed to multiple threats small cats in India face in the form of roadkills, snaring, hunting, indiscriminate use of pesticides in crop fields and future climate change scenarios, among others. The extent of these threats to the animal, which can survive in a variety of habitats, can only be fully known with better, focused studies on it.
The leopard cat is the world’s most widely distributed small cat species occurring from South Asia, East Asia to Southeast Asia. “In India, they are distributed along the Himalayan foothills, and in the Himalayas, almost all along the northeast and the eastern part, and the northern Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats,” said Shomita Mukherjee, senior principal scientist at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) who has researched on leopard cats in India.
Members of the Felidae family (which includes leopard cats) are at the top of the trophic hierarchy in an ecosystem and often require large habitat ranges. Thus, most cat species are found only on continents or large islands. The leopard cat is an exception here. It occurs on several small islands as well as larger islands and the Asian continent. With 12 subspecies, the wide distribution reflects the adaptation to a broad habitat niche, which comprises tropical evergreen rainforests, temperate, coniferous, and shrub forests, as well as grasslands. Despite their preference for evergreen forests, leopard cats are habitat generalists, one of the reasons behind their wide distribution, a study from Cambodia, published last year, found.
Small cats deserve more attention than they receive now
Researchers say that there’s a lack of interest in small cats in India with most of the conservation studies focused on charismatic cats like leopards and tigers. As a result, the information on this felid is largely limited to isolated density estimates from various protected areas. Independent scientist Priya Singh believes it is not enough since leopard cats are highly versatile and are found in a variety of habitats including crop fields and coffee and oil palm plantations.
The study from Cambodia also found that despite the species sharing space with other carnivores, their population was largely unaffected by it since they have developed certain mechanisms to survive amidst them. One of the mechanisms could be nocturnality, suggests another study from Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve. The study on the temporal activity patterns of four small and medium cats found leopard cats to be nocturnal, a probable survival trait by which they successfully partition resources with other carnivores. “They were separating themselves by adjusting the timing of their movement. Leopard cats feed on prey that are active in the night like murids. They may be predating on roosting birds or eggs or snakes or lizards, geckos, etc.,” shared Singh who led the study conducted in 2014-15 in Dampa.
Leopard cats sensitive to temperature, may not withstand global warming
What is peculiar about leopard cats in India is that there are two genetically distinct populations. This was revealed by a phylogenetic study done by Mukherjee and team in 2010. Moreover, the species is distributed almost across India barring Central India.
The analysis of mitochondrial DNA from scat samples of 40 leopard cats from different biogeographic zones in India found the Western Ghats population to be genetically distinct and geographically isolated from the other Indian and Southeast Asian populations. Researchers hypothesised from its absence in Central India that a rise in temperature in the peninsular region of India during the LGM (Last Glacial Maximum) around 20,000 years ago caused the split in the leopard cat population and the high summer temperature in Central India has limited its presence there.
“There seems like a temperature barrier for leopard cats at 40 degrees Celsius. The modeling studies supported the genetic data. This was also backed by past literature and museum samples that had no records of leopard cats from Central India,” Mukherjee told Mongabay India.
A population density estimation done on leopard cats in four tiger reserves in south India —Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT), Bhadra, Bandipur and Nagarhole tiger reserves —corroborated Mukherjee’s findings that leopard cats prefer wetter areas and their distribution is positively influenced by annual precipitation. Bhadra with the highest annual rainfall supported the highest densities of the leopard cat population, followed by the BRT. The drier reserves, Nagarahole and Bandipur were found to support much lower densities of the species. Due to a lack of targeted studies, it remains an assumption that global warming and associated temperature rise could impact the species adversely considering the temperature threshold it exhibits.
Another potential reason for its low numbers in Bandipur and Nagarhole is the high tiger and leopard densities in these protected areas resulting in competitive exclusion. This is a possibility considering Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve, which has no tigers despite its status, has a healthy population of four species of small and medium cats. Singh, who has decades of research experience in northeast India, believes the absence of tigers at the reserve is favouring the small cat population.
Better awareness, more focused studies needed to protect the species
One of the major pitfalls of small cat conservation in India is the tiger-centred forest management and conservation practices the country follows. Singh said that Dampa Tiger Reserve and its healthy population of small felines don’t get the respect or recognition they deserve due to the absence of tigers. There is an increasing demand to reintroduce tigers at Dampa which she thinks would be detrimental to the population of small cats.
Researchers feel that there is a lack of awareness among people about small cat species and the importance of conserving them. Since leopard cats inhabit human-modified landscapes and predate on poultry, reports of retaliatory killings are not uncommon. As a solution, Singh suggested adequately compensating communities not just for their loss of poultry from predation but for reducing the loss by strengthening coups, etc. to avoid knee-jerk reactions from people. Such participatory approaches are perhaps the best ways to conserve lesser-known animals like small cats.
Mukherjee said that conserving leopard cats will favour the farmers because they feed on rodents and act as a natural pest control. She suggested regulating the use of pesticides in farmlands to reinforce small and medium wildcat conservation. According to Mukherjee, the speedy implementation of OECMs (other effective area-based conservation measures), a new conservation approach that includes areas not limited to protected areas for conservation, is a positive approach towards small cats’ conservation. “The implementation of OECMs is especially beneficial to the leopard cat population in the Western Ghats since the region has plenty of plantations and practices agroforestry. Leopard cats are found across these landscapes. It would make a big difference to their conservation,’ Mukherjee suggested.
Banner image: A leopoard cat at a facility in Taiwan. Photo by ourskyuamlea/Wikimedia Commons.