2012 / 11月
Coral Lee /photos courtesy of courtesy of Chen Mei-ting /tr. by Scott Williams
The endangered leopard cat is one of only two wild cat species native to Taiwan.
A nocturnal predator with a build similar to that of a housecat, it is both clever and secretive. Hard to spot in the wild and difficult to study, the cats were for many years something of a mystery. That began to change six or seven years ago, when researchers finally began uncovering the cats’ secrets.
Miaoli County has a relatively large population of leopard cats, but development has endangered this cleverest of cats. We must work together if we are to save them from the threats they face.
“I used to think that leopard cats lived deep in the mountains, and just barged into those areas like an idiot to do surveys,” says Chen Mei-ting, a PhD candidate at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST), in an early October lecture to Miaoli’s Tongxiao Forest Conservation Society on low-elevation wildlife and ecosystems. “Later, I learned that these precious animals live right among us.” Chen is giving her lecture today in hope that her audience, local residents who lease national forestland from the Forestry Bureau, will move to the forefront of efforts to conserve the leopard cat.
Leopard cats are speckled, ash-brown or yellow-brown in color, and weigh three to six kilograms. Their bodies are 55–65 centimeters long and their tails about 30 cm long. Truth be told, leopard cats don’t look all that different from a tabby housecat, the most obvious difference being the white patch they have behind their ears.
Chen says that Miaoli’s low-elevation mountain areas have broadleaf forests, manmade forests, bamboo groves, agricultural lands, and irrigation ponds in close proximity to towns and villages, and that these varied environments are home to 23 mammalian species.A nurturing environment
Why do leopard cats choose to live so close to human habitations?
Because the grasslands, forests, and fields are full of the rodents, birds, and hares on which they prey, and the forests provide the cats with a protected environment in which to rear their young.
Many members of the Tongxiao Conservation Society have been in the business of growing economically important tree crops such as Formosan acacia and tung trees for years. The society itself is one of the few Miaoli groups actively engaged in agroforestry. With government conservation policies reducing lumber harvests, society members have been seeking to transition into other fields and have become involved with the Forestry Bureau’s “community forestry” program.
Yu Chien-hsun, a technician with the bureau’s Hsinchu Forest District Office, says that the bureau is gathering data for a leopard cat conservation zone in Miaoli. The society is in favor of the effort, but hopes it can be combined with community development.
On this afternoon, Chen is leading a group of conservation society members into Hsinchu’s No. 74 and 75 forest lands to conduct a survey. When they run into an animal trail, they begin boring into the forest and soon find a gray-white mass of leopard cat scat. Chen explains that leopard cats don’t bury their scat, instead using it and urine to mark their territories. She then reminds society members to bury whatever territorial markers they find after recording their location to avoid double counting.
Chen says that excrement serves multiple purposes for male leopard cats, who not only use it to mark territory, but also to attract females. She adds that leopard cats have quite large territories, with the males having home ranges of five to six square kilometers, and the females 1.5-1.8 km².
“If it weren’t for Chen’s research, we’d know almost nothing,” says Yu. He explains that development projects like the County Route 50 and Provincial Route 13 bypasses would have done great damage to the cats’ habitat if the environmental impact studies (EIS) hadn’t looked at Chen’s data. He mentions the Fulüshou Cemetery project in Houlong as another case in point. The Legislative Yuan and environmental groups have called for the EIS to be redone because the original didn’t examine the project’s impact on the leopard cats’ habitat. As a result, the project is still under negotiation.Addicted to cats
Most animal experts have a story about how they ended up in the field. In Chen’s case, her study of leopard cats began with her love of cats in general.
Chen studied history as an undergraduate, but after graduation went to work providing care for animals in the Taipei Zoo’s Nocturnal Animal House. Though the two years she spent tending bobcats and leopard cats satisfied her desire to observe the cats up close, she came to realize that zoo work and conservation work were quite different. She went back to school, this time in the US, intending to write a master’s thesis on Taiwan’s cats. Since the Formosan clouded leopard was already extinct, she planned to focus on the leopard cat.
However, Kurtis Pei, a professor at NPUST from whom she sought advice, recommended that she expand her study to small carnivores more generally. He felt that there was so little information available on the leopard cat in Taiwan that Chen would need much more than two years to complete her thesis. She therefore also examined populations of small carnivorous mammals such as crab-eating mongooses and civets.
Chen had a scary moment while doing her master’s fieldwork: she nearly died after being stung more than 100 times by hornets. She saved herself by hiding in a river until the hornets dispersed. Unfortunately, she was not immediately put on dialysis or given a transfusion when she got to the hospital, and her kidneys failed. Her ordeal went on to include internal bleeding, ulcerations all over her body, and more than 20 days in an intensive care unit.
Even so, her passion for her research continued to burn. After completing her master’s degree, she came across animal rescue reports indicating that traces of leopard cats had been found in Miaoli and Nantou.King of the mountain revealed
But even given that traces of leopard cats had been found in the low mountains stretching from Miaoli to Chiayi, how many were there? A population survey was needed. Chen decided to focus her PhD research specifically on the leopard cats of the low-elevation mountainous regions of Hsinchu and Miaoli.
Leopard cats are always on the move and studying them over a broad area requires infrared cameras with automated triggers. But Pei was able to secure funding from the Forestry Bureau in 2005, allowing Chen to set up cameras at 137 sample sites in Miaoli and 72 in Hsinchu. After three years, she had enough data to map the cats’ distribution.
She also captured and radio-tagged six cats in 2007–2008 so she could track their movements and learn when they are active and how far they roam.
“Leopard cats can really run,” she says. “We couldn’t keep up with them on our motorcycles.” She mentions that one of the cats she tracked—a male named A-shu—would range over as much as two to three square kilometers in the course of an evening. Every time Chen and her companion picked up the signal from his tag and stopped their motorcycles to get a good reading, A-shu would disappear again. Chen would quickly note their position, then take up the chase once again. Over the course of the night, A-shu ran them ragged.
Miaoli residents spot leopard cats fairly often, so Chen also passed around questionnaires. She found an elderly man who had seen a mother with four kittens, and a hunter who told her that the cats climb very well. Many residents also described how the cats hunt chickens: “They grab one, fling it over a shoulder, then strut away.”
Even after years of study, Chen is well aware that there’s still much to be learned about the cats’ habits, such as their breeding season, breeding behaviors, and how they rear their young, not to mention their distribution across other low-elevation mountainous areas and the problems they face therein.Habitat destruction
Leopard cats are distributed throughout East and Southeast Asia in habitats that include tropical rainforests, coniferous forests, and semi-arid lands. They are both the most widespread and most adaptable of cats.
However, they face more severe environmental problems on the island of Taiwan than they do in their continental ranges. The foremost of these is habitat destruction through development. The planned Houlong cemetery is a case in point. Though only a few dozen hectares in area, the cemetery would cut across the cats’ range and greatly reduce the availability of prey.
Roads are another killer. In March of 2012, two leopard cats were killed on the same stretch of County Route 128 in Miaoli in just eight days.
Hunting and poisoning are also threats. Chen’s study of the six cats she tagged was cut short when five died in traps or by poisoning. Though heartbroken, there was little she could do except work harder to make the people of rural Miaoli aware that the cats are important, protected animals.
Fortunately, in recent years the Forestry Bureau and the Nature and Ecology Society of Miaoli have been actively pursuing conservation measures. The society has been working with fire departments to disseminate information on rescuing injured leopard cats and to build a poultry-farm notification system, a project which involves installing infrared cameras on farms and offering rewards for information on the cats. These efforts have markedly increased the reporting of injured cats and of cats killed by the roadside.
Conservationists are also hoping to have the leopard cat named a sort of mascot for Miaoli County, much as the Okinawan island of Iriomote has done with the endangered Iriomote cat (a subspecies of leopard cat). Iriomote has made the cat its tourism ambassador, posted signs on roads all over the island warning drivers to be careful, and created wildlife corridors. In addition, products from the island are all emblazoned with an image of the cat, much to the delight of tourists.
There’s no doubt that Taiwan’s most beautiful cat is up to the task of being Miaoli’s tourism ambassador. “Hiring” the leopard cat would do more than repair the cat’s fortunes. It would also go a long way towards conserving Taiwan’s low-elevation mountain ecosystems.