The Asian golden cat (Catopuma temminckii) is one of the wild cat species widely distributed in Bhutan, from the lower subtropics to areas above 3000 m. It is one of the largest of all other small cats distributed geographically in South Asia (Nepal, Bhutan and North East India) through parts of China to South East Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Sumatra). The Asiatic Golden Cat is commonly found in forest habitats with few records of scrub, open rocky terrain, and grasslands ranging from sea level to 4000 m.
The eating habit of the Asian Golden Cat is generally nocturnal and feeds on birds, lizards, small mammals, barking deer, monkeys, and mouse deer. There are also records of hunting sheep, buffalo calves, sheep and goats, prey larger than their body size. The wide range of distribution and eating habits of the Asian Golden Cat is due to its adaptive physical modifications – they exhibit different variations in coat color called color morphs.
In Bhutan, four different forms of Asian golden cats (golden form, ocelot form, melanic form and gray form) have been recorded. However, the new study has revealed the presence of two new color forms, cinnamon and the rosette forms of the Asian golden cat. The polymorphism of the Asian golden cat is believed to help it overcome competition and predation from large carnivores in the wild.
This finding is the result of a joint research project on Resolving Population Estimation Bias from Camera Trap Studies undertaken by the World Wildlife Fund and the Department of Forest and Park Services in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London, Panthera International, Flora and Fauna International. , and the University of Southampton with a Principal Investigator from the Department of Forest and Park Services. The study site was in Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park and Royal Manas National Park in central Bhutan.
The study to calibrate the camera trap bias deployed 300 cameras in 100 2 x 2 km survey grid cells over a 14 month period in the Tingtibee Range (administrative block) of Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park and the Gomphu from Royal Manas National Park. The images of the camera traps reveal the presence of the Asian golden cat from 800 to 2500 m in this study area.
However, the maximum catches were from the altitude range above 2000 m.
The world of cats is as unique as it is diverse. The cuddly domestic cat that purrs peacefully by the fireplace and the majestic tiger that takes a nap in the shade of the lush Himalayan forest belong to the same family, the Felidae. Geneticists have found 37 different species of cats that belong to eight distinct lineages evolved over the past 10 million years.
Wild cats are magnificent engineers of the ecosystem, most of them occupying the first place in the trophic. The role of small cats in controlling the rodent population up to the big cat trophic cascade contributes to the healthy regeneration of forests and the maintenance of the balanced ecosystem of the landscape. However, feral cats are one of the animals most in conflict with humans. Therefore, continued monitoring and study of these feral cats is necessary for conservation interventions and mitigation of threats to their survival resulting from negative interaction with human settlements.
The study of feral cats in Bhutan dates back to the 1980s. The method adopted at the time was the sign survey and interview of the local population. Over the years, with the advancement of science and technology, camera traps have been used as a passive surveillance tool.
Camera traps are âwildlife friendlyâ and do little or no disturbance to wildlife. Camera traps have been the primary tool used to study wildlife, capturing fascinating images and video clips of terrestrial species. The Camera Trap collects a wide variety of data, including data on the location of species, population sizes, and how species interact in a landscape. The use of statistical analysis information from camera traps provides empirical evidence for conservation intervention and decision making.
Phrumsengla National Park captured the first camera trap image of a tiger in Bhutan in 2000, and it was the first record of the Royal Bengal tiger from the highest altitude (3000m). The first-ever systematic national monitoring of Bhutan’s tiger and snow leopard in 2015 and 2016 mainly used camera traps. The use of camera traps is now a gold standard for monitoring feral cats around the world.
Bhutan has 11 recorded wild cat species, nine confirmed, and the presence of lynx and fishing cats is based on anecdotal sources. Camera traps had captured seven of the 11 species;
I. Tiger (Panthera tigris)
II. Common leopard (Panthera pardus), including the melanistic form known as the black panther
III. Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)
IV. Asiatic golden cat (Catopuma temminckii) including six color morphs
V. Marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata)
VI. Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)
VII. Jungle cat (Felis chaus)
Considering that Bhutan covers only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, the number is even more fascinating. Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park alone is home to seven species of feral cats, possibly the largest number of feral cat species in the world sharing a single space in a landscape.
Interestingly, these species are present in all experimental grids monitored and recovered so far.
Our preliminary judgment is that most small cats are found near human settlements where they have access to easy prey, and big cats like tigers and leopards are found in deep forests where they mark their territory. While iconic big cats receive due attention and conservation priority, little cats should not be forgotten. They are an essential part of the ecosystem and are also threatened globally by habitat loss and human pressures. They are small but beautiful.
Kuenley Tenzin, WWF Bhutan, and Lungten Dorji, University of Southampton