The biggest threat to wild cats around the world is habitat destruction. Every year, there are fewer and fewer intact forests and wildernesses around the world. Nowhere on Earth is this problem more rampant than it is in Southeast Asia, where forests are logged, burned, and converted to monocultures of palm oil. It is a crisis- Sumatra has lost 50% of its forests in just the last 20 years!
As a result of such destructive industries, many unique and wonderful animals, including wild cats, have experienced dramatic population declines. Javan tigers went extinct in the early 1980s. Sumatran tigers are on the brink of extinction with only 400 individuals remaining; with fewer than 200 breeding adults. Javan leopards are critically endangered and losing habitat daily. Yet amongst all of these terrible losses, there is one tiny cat that has proven to be more adaptable and resilient than its larger brethren- the leopard cat.
Leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) are a small wild cat native to India, China, and Southeast Asia. With 12 recognized subspecies across its range, there is an incredible amount of geographic variation in leopard cat size, color and pattern. Due to a wide range, relatively stable populations, and a high degree of genetic diversity, leopard cats are listed by the IUCN as Least Concern.
But although they are relatively resilient, leopard cats are still not immune to human impacts. Some subspecies and isolated populations of leopard cats are still in peril due to habitat destruction and persecution.
Fortunately, leopard cats are adaptable enough to persist in human-impacted environments like sugarcane fields and palm oil plantations. In these places, leopard cats may still be able to find the resources they need to survive, such as ample prey and suitable den sites. In some cases, leopard cats are even encouraged on plantations as a natural means of rodent control.
Conservation CATalyst aims to discover what factors influence the leopard cats’ ability to persist while sympatric felids tend to vanish. Do leopard cats succeed because of prey preferences or because of a preferred hunting style? Do they have an ability to produce large litters to compensate for losses? Can plantations alone support leopard cat populations, or do cats also require adjacent natural areas? By answering these questions, we can determine how to better design and manage agricultural landscapes both for leopard cats and for the other cat species that typically disappear from human-altered habitats.
Is coexistence possible? Perhaps the leopard cat holds the key.
"The current massive degradation of habitat and extinction of species
is taking place on a catastrophically short timescale,
and their effects will fundamentally reset the future evolution of the planet's biota."