Bhutan: a hotspot of wild cat diversity
Did you know that Bhutan is a hotspot of wild cat diversity? It is home to 11 species of wild cats which is about 30% of all wild cat species found in the world. Considering that Bhutan only covers .03% of the earth’s surface, that number seems even more amazing. Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park in central Bhutan alone is home to eight wild cat species which is perhaps the world’s highest number of wild cat species sharing a single space.
Bhutan has three big cats: tiger, snow leopard, common leopard; one medium-sized cat: clouded leopard and seven smaller wild cats: Pallas’s cat, leopard cat, marbled cat, Asiatic golden cat, jungle cat, lynx* and the fishing cat*.
Small wild cats of Bhutan
As a wildlife biologist, I study many of our cat species through camera trapping. Recently I have also embarked upon a tiger project in Bhutan using non-invasive genetics. While the big cats are always impressive, I also have a special interest in the lesser known small cats.
So let’s focus on the small wild cats of Bhutan. Mostly of the size of an ordinary house cat, they are charismatic, unique and just as awe-inspiring as their bigger cousins. They can be found across diverse habitats: in the plains, valleys, near rivers and wetlands, dense forests to alpine mountains and snow and also show different behavioral habits such as climbing trees and fishing. However, they can be challenging to see: they are shy, elusive and in Bhutan, the remoteness and abundant forest provide them the ideal cover to hide.
The small wild cats are one of the lesser knowns, and lesser studied group of animals in Bhutan. Very little information is available about their ecology and threats and unfortunately, the same is true for many small cat species around the world. The lack of knowledge, conservation funding, and attention belie their essential role in the ecosystem. Recent camera trapping exercises on tigers and snow leopards in the country by the Department of Forest and Park Services have provided some useful insights into their distribution. Here are five small wild cat species that have been successfully camera trapped in Bhutan:
1. Pallas’s cat Otocolobus manul
Pallas’s cat or Manul is a rare small wild cat. They are fluffy and cute and are a high-altitude species living in the alpine grasslands and shrub steppes. They are known to occur in low numbers naturally and are habitat specialists making them highly vulnerable to threats such as habitat degradation, conversion, and climate change. They were first recorded in Bhutan in 2012 in Wangchuck Centennial National Park. In the same year, they were reported in the western part of Jigme Dorji National Park. These two locations are the only known distribution records of the species in the country. They are listed as Near-threatened on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
2. Asiatic golden cat Catopuma temminckii
Also known as the Temminck’s cat, the Asiatic golden cat is a “feline of many costumes.” The species occur in four different coat colors known as morphs: golden, grey, melanistic and spotted. Interestingly all morphs are reported in Bhutan. At one instance in Bumthang in central Bhutan, individuals of all the four different morphs were recorded at the same locality, and few were observed to interact with each other socially. The golden cat is a habitat generalist, widely distributed and occurs from low elevations to more than 4000 meters. Previously thought to be rare, they now are frequently caught on camera traps in Bhutan. They are also listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
3. Marbled cat Pardofelis marmorata
Primarily a species of the moist tropical forests, they have been recorded up to 3177 meters in Wangchuck Centennial National Park. The cat is reputed as one of the “fiercest of all cats.” They look like a smaller version of the clouded leopard and share a similar coat pattern. They have a long bushy tail which they use to balance their body while climbing trees or jumping from one branch to another. They are arboreal and secretive in nature and are rarely spotted by our camera traps. They are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
4. Leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis
The leopard cats are the most widely distributed and the most common smaller cat species in Bhutan. They are also habitat generalists and can be found across numerous habitat types including in and around human settlements. Recently there have been cases of stranded leopard cat kittens being picked up by people. Leopard cat moms are often known to leave their kittens behind when they hunt, and people who come across the kittens mistakenly believe they are abandoned and in need of rescue. Historically, the leopard cat was thought to be rare and was listed as a protected species under the Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan 1995. However, today they are listed as Least Concern on the ICUN red list
5. Jungle cat Felis chaus
Although known to be a common species, they are hard to camera trap. So far, they have been reported in only two national parks in Bhutan: Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park and the Royal Manas National Park. However, anecdotal accounts suggest that they are widespread and can be found near villages. They may easily be mistaken for a house cat to an inexperienced eye. They can be differentiated by a yellowish red tinge on their grey coat, and their ears have a small tuft of black hair at the tip. They are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN red list.
Species-specific studies are needed to generate baseline information on the small wild cats of Bhutan. Many feel that fishing cat and lynx must occur in the country and dedicated surveys in their ideal habitats would be an important step to confirm their range.
Overall, the small wild cats need attention from the global conservation community. Funding is a significant constraint on people who are passionate about small cat conservation. From 2007-2013, small cats have received less than 1% of the total conservation funding on all wild cats. In total, there are seven big cats but there are 33 small cat species, and so, they are a big part of the ecosystem and should be a priority. Just like the lions, tigers and snow leopards, they are also globally threatened by habitat loss and poaching. If we don’t start taking action now, many of them could be on the verge of extinction or even gone by the time we know and act.
*the presence of lynx and fishing cats are based on anecdotal sources; however, they are expected to occur in Bhutan as they are found just across the border in India: fishing cat in Assam and lynx in Sikkim.