How Do Scientists Study Small Cats in a Big World?
February 2, 2021
February 8, 2021
Panthera's conservation work has long benefitted small cats and other wildlife in the iconic seven big cats' habitats. However, in 2018 we officially launched our Small Cats Program to expand our understanding of these increasingly threatened species and how to protect them. However, each of the 33 species of small cat has its own unique conservation challenges.
With 33 species of small wild cat across almost every continent, studying and protecting these lesser-known felines can be a daunting task. Small Cats Program Director Dr. Wai-Ming Wong “envisions thriving populations of small cats in natural habitats across the world” and hopes to reach this vision by accurately assessing each species’ conservation status and developing targeted conservation plans for them. Through partnerships with outside organizations and institutions, as well as collaborations with our own big cat programs, we are currently focusing on over 15 different small cat species.
The biggest problem facing small cat scientists? Very little is known about these species: their populations, habitat requirements, distributions, etc. They are often elusive (some are nocturnal or arboreal), rare and secretive- making them very difficult to study in the wild. Besides their fundamental nature, it’s fair to say the smaller wild cats have been somewhat neglected in the conservation world. For example, between 2007 and 2013 small cats received less than one percent of available funding for wild cat research, most of which goes to the seven big cats like lions, tigers and jaguars.
Regional Coordinator based in Malaysian Borneo Roshan Guharajan agrees, saying that for most of these small cat species, there isn’t enough information to even create a baseline for population numbers. He works with local scientists, scouts and communities to study the wild cats of this area (which includes the Sunda clouded leopard, leopard cat, flat-headed cat, marbled cat and the endemic Bay cat) and protect their habitat from outside incursion. His study area is especially unique because unlike most other places, the small wild cats found here don’t have big cats to contend with as natural apex predators.
Most small cats are charismatic mesopredators that play critical roles in their ecosystems- roles we’re still trying to define across the world to help maintain balance in our biodiversity. Each species has its own unique and exciting traits. The black-footed cat is known as the “deadliest cat” because they have the highest hunting success rate. Clouded leopards, marbled cats and margays are all incredibly arboreal and acrobatic. In Asia, fishing cats are adapted for aquatic landscapes with partially webbed feet and long protruding claws. In Africa, servals are Olympic-worthy jumpers and can even catch birds in flight with a single vertical leap, sometimes higher than 2 meters.
Since these smaller-sized felines tend to be just as elusive as they are diminutive, it can be incredibly challenging to find their tracks and signs in the wild as we would some big cat species, let alone track specific individuals. Fortunately, recent camera trap developments have made it possible to study these hidden creatures. Conservation Scientist Vanessa Herranz Muñoz,who works with fishing cats in Cambodia, says it's a very difficult species to study, especially in areas of dense mangroves. Luckily, identifying land platforms where these small cats regularly visited for scent-marking has allowed her team to know where to set up camera traps for good footage.
Camera trapping is one of the main tools of wild cat conservation; it allows us a window into a world we wouldn’t usually get a glimpse of. Panthera has employed over 20,000 camera traps over more than 38 countries and as a consequence, have amassed a huge amount of data. Small Cat Data Scientist Joleen Broadfield’s job is to use this abundance of camera trap data to create a global small cat database and fill some of their numerous knowledge gaps. Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy task. While small and big cats may have similar distributions, they’re often quite different at the small scale level. While some small cat species may be more abundant than neighboring big cats, their capture rates on camera traps are sometimes too low to do any meaningful analysis with.
Due to their size, small cats are often rolled under conservation plans created for larger species like tigers and lions and while this can help, many species will need their own specific actions implemented. Luckily, this overlapping range and distribution make it possible for us to “team up” with big cat programs in our research. For example, where you find tigers in Southeast Asia, you generally find clouded leopards and other sympatric small cat species. In Latin America, we study small cats such as ocelots and margays alongside jaguars and in Central Asia, snow leopards share habitat with lynx and Pallas cats.
Panthera’s Puma Program, led by Dr. Mark Elbroch, is launching new bobcat research in collaboration with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in Washington State. Using camera-traps and other study methods, they hope to learn more about how these small cats compete and coexist with pumas. “We’re interested in studying the potential positive role bobcats play in limiting aplodontia, a large rodent that impacts the local timber industry via damaging young trees. We’re also interested in revealing some of their secret lives and lifting their conservation profile across their range,” Elbroch says.
While servals may be nicknamed “housecat-sized leopards,” they are still very much wild animals. In South Africa, our scientists study both species in their surveys and both cats benefit from our law enforcement actions in the region. “We have also found that our leopard-focussed camera trap surveys can be used to generate reasonably accurate population density estimates for servals as well, which is a huge bonus!” says Leopard Monitoring Coordinator Gareth Mann.
Serval skins are used in ceremonial attire by numerous culturo-religious groups in southern Africa, including as substitutes for leopard skins. Panthera’s Furs for Life program works with digital designers and communities that wish to curb their use of real cat skin to create high-quality and affordable synthetic capes, known as amambatha. Counter Wildlife Crime Regional Coordinator for Southern Africa Gareth Whittington-Jones believes that “the adoption of synthetic fur alternatives will greatly reduce the demand for both authentic leopard and serval skins and catalyse other user groups to explore similar approaches.”
Omar Ohrens is a Panthera conservation biologist working in Chile. “There’s not much information about wild cats in Chile in general and the lack of funding makes it difficult to learn more about the country’s small cats like the Geoffrey’s cat, kodkod, güiña, colocolo and Andean cat,” he says. The Puma and the Small Cats Programs are collaborating to gather camera-trap images of both pumas and Geoffrey’s Cats in Patagonia. Even still, it’s not a one-catch study; Geoffrey’s cats inhabit more forested areas than pumas which means the teams, while overlapping, must set up their own camera trap grids. Not to mention they’re much smaller, meaning the cameras need to be positioned at lower heights than those used to catch photos of pumas.
Protecting small cats means addressing conservation issues for them and other species (especially other wild cats) within their particular landscape. We need to know how big and small cats interact with each other and their environment. Additional challenges arise when you consider each species' specific needs and threats to those needs. For example, Pallas cats live in specialized habitats and their prey are often targeted as pests by local communities, depleting their food sources. Another unique threat facing small cats is that of hybridization with domestic species to create artificial breeds such as the Savannah cat.
With these unique challenges and threats in mind, Panthera’s Small Cats Program is on-the-ground across the globe. We’re currently developing a long list of projects with other organizations and institutions such as the Urban Fishing Cat Project in Sri Lanka. We are also forming a new partnership with the Borneo Nature Foundation and Global Wildlife Conservation to conserve wild cats in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Panthera is also spearheading a number of very exciting projects on our own including studying ocelots in Brazil’s Pantanal as well as some range-wide distribution surveys for species like the flat-headed cat and African golden cat.
Dr. Wong sees a brighter future for small cat conservation. More focus on these species means more interest and more funding. “The more we learn about them, the more we see greater need for their conservation,” he says.