Five different wild cats, none bigger than a calf, call Bangladesh home. But these elusive cats are overlooked and least-studied; often feared without reason and killed in retaliation. Now, they are approaching extinction. Are we losing our small cats before we can even get to know them?
The past week was for cats. On August 4, it was the International Clouded Leopard Day to spread love and awareness for the species. Clouded leopard is a super-secretive cat species; luckily, we have it here in Bangladesh. On August 8, we observed the International Cat Day, a celebration to relish human-feline relationship. Cats are popular companion animal, a known stress-reliever. They even thrived in social and religious practices of ancient Egypt, considered as deity. We are talking about a bond sustaining for more than 3,000 years, if not since the beginning of Man.
I was processing these facts while stroking my cat, Bing Bing, a two-year old domestic breed. In response, she was trying to bite my finger off. The cat-themed week and her efforts did not go in vain. I was struck by some stark facts.
How well do we know our cats? Now I am speaking of wild cat species. How many species of cats roam the earth? Other than larger, better-known'iconic' greater cats, do we know that most wild cats are small? Some can even be smaller than a house cat.
And, how many wild cat species do we have here in Bangladesh? How are they doing in a crammed, not-so-green land?
One family, 44 different faces
In 2018, the BBC aired a miniseries named Big Cats. Using the latest technologies, the show revealed some baffling, never-seen-before footages of 12-15 different elusive felines. The promo of Big Cats started with a sub-heading: One family, 40 different faces.
Biologically, the cats of the world belong to a single family, Felidae. There used to be about 40 species. But, in the last two years, the number of faces has increased. A 2020 study published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society reveals that pampas cat, a super-secretive small cat of the South American steppes and plains, is actually five different species.
So, it is this little we know of the small cats.
Defining small cats
So, the next question is who these small cats are. In science, one stark difference, the ability of roaring, separates the cat family into two different clades. The roaring cats are all big and comprise tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar. Snow leopard, rivalling the size of leopard, also falls in the category, albeit not having the roaring ability.
The rest of the wild cats are grouped as small cats; often termed as the lesser cats. However, clouded leopard has a special mention among the felids.It is an evolutionary link between the greater and the lesser cats, often placed with the greater cousins.
The cat of your homestead
The most common of all cats of Bangladesh is jungle cat (Bonbiral, Wab in Bangla). It occurs all over the country, can be found in any old, undisturbed homesteads and backyard jungles. Its brownish straw-coloured coat is often confusing with the feral ginger cats; the jungle cat-domestic cat hybrids are also common. Visibly long ear-tuft, white-muzzle, slender legs, cheek stripe and black stripes (generally paired) inside of forelegs are the telltale signs of the species.
This is the only cat that still lives in the suburban areas, and also in Dhaka. But their heydays are long gone. For food and habitat, cats this small, too, come into conflict with humans and are struck down. It was the first day of 2017-when I last saw one in Purbachal. Now, the area is completely cleared off of any vegetation.
The cat that fishes
Not all cats dislike water. Some rather love it and specializes for an aquatic life. Fishing cat (Mechobiral) might resemble a tiger, but all that interests this beautifully patterned cat is fish. This species can do dive-fishing and develop semi-webbed fingers to net its slippery, splashing prey. Wetlands of Bangladesh, particularly the haor basins, are the last bastions of the species.
Let megive you a gruesome fact. Of all human-animal conflict news in Bangladesh, more than seventy percent features fishing cat. In the past ten years, there are about 250 such media reports—most on persecution news and traffic accidents, some telling us kitten 'rescued while mother was driven off', very few were actually on successful releases.
The unreported incidents on human-fishing cat encounters are certainly higher. In 2018, I was shown a photo of a fishing cat beaten to pulp and discarded in the middle of nowhere of a dried-up flood-plain. Anwar Palash, a young wildlife biologist, took the photo and described me the scene. I can still read the horror in his face.
Fishing cat might be down-listed by IUCN, International Conservation Union of Nature, from Endangered to Vulnerable. The cat is in its last leg here.
One that mimics leopard
In May of this year, a news startled the social media. Three spotted, yellow coated kittens were sighted and caught from a paddyfield in Cumilla. They were initially misidentified as leopard cub. The confusion soon cleared up. Those kittens actually belonged to leopard cat (chitabiral), a miniature look-alike of leopard.
Leopard cat is slightly bigger than a regular-sized house cat. However, it is more agile with a long, thick-furred tail. Leopard cat is an Asian species. It enjoys a wide distribution from Siberia to the Indonesian archipelago, from the Middle East to the Philippines.
In Bangladesh, it is anticipated as a forest species. However, there are several sightings and encounters nearby human settlements. "This secretive cat is as widespread as our jungle cat and fishing cat.'' Dr Suprio Chakma, an assistant professor of Zoology at Rangamati Science and Technology University, said in one casual meet.
Story of the singleton
The rest three of our small cats are extremely secretive. One such species is marbled cat (mormorbiral). Only in 2013, we became confirmed about its existence in Bangladesh. A kitten was rescued (bit by feral dog) from Srimangaland later brought up in a local menagerie. It is still there, alive. The discovery was documented by Dr Monirul H Khan-a professor of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University- in Cat News, a journal dedicated to the wild cats.
Marbled cat shares the similar dimension of leopard cat. However, it is furrier with longer tail and a darker coat pattern. The species is Nearly Threatened and least-studied across its distribution. The fact may surprise you as it did me: Its solid proof of existence in Nepal surfaced only last year, according to a study in Nature Conservation.
The eastern mixed evergreen forests of Bangladesh are ideal habitats for the species. In 2017, a team of conservationists named CCA (Creative Conservation Alliance) camera-trapped it from the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT).
Six shades of a cat
The Asiatic golden cat (Sonalibiral) shows a fascinating feature, not seen in any other cats. Its coat pattern can be of six different types: golden, grey, cinnamon, black, spotted and a dark rosetted pattern. Some are so different that scientists had first thought each was separate species. This spectacular discovery was made in 2015 from the Arunachal Pradesh – a region not very far from Bangladesh. All morphs were camera-trapped from a single study area of about 10,000 km2.
Two of the six morphs have been observed so far in Bangladesh. One melanistic individual was killed in Sylhet in 2009. Several camera-trapped evidences of typical golden-coated morphs have surfaced in recent times from the eastern mixed ever-green forests.
The species is Vulnerable in Bangladesh.
The special mention
Clouded leopard(gechobagh/lamchita) is the largest of our uncommon cats. But it is not that big—smaller than the smallest of a female leopard, short-legged and very lightly built for an arboreal lifestyle. The species cannot roar either. However, this cat shows some traits that confuse everyone. When compared to skull size, clouded leopard has the longest canines. It can open jaw to an astounding 100 degree wide. Clouded leopard gets the name from large, irregular, dusky grey blotches.
Records of this species in Bangladesh are also very few, not more than five. In the early 2000, two specimens had been rescued from a region bordering Meghalaya, later raised in a safari park. Camera-trapped photos were obtained by Dr Khan from Kaptai National Park and by CCA from CHT.
What can we do?
It appears that half of our small cats live around us. But they are being treated poorly. The other half are like mystic creatures. We know they live in our remaining eastern forests. But that is all. Apart from the sporadic encounters, we don't know much about their lifestyle.How they are getting food in ever-receding habitats is shrouded in mystery.
However, both halves, together, portray a marvel. They are surviving in a country that has more than 1000 people per sq. km and less than 7 percent natural forest cover. The fact leads to another fact: Their existence depends on our attitude toward them. The balance will only shift toward something positive if we start having a feeling as we feel for our national pride, tiger.
"Small carnivores are rarely a subject of research, usually studied within the large-scale landscape-level projects. Such prioritisation is everyday practice and is absolutely unavoidable for developing countries like Bangladesh." Last month I was told by an anonymous reviewer of one of my manuscripts. I felt sad.
Then, again, while writing this piece, I came across many interesting facts and discoveries. They showed that, even on global scale, we are still learning about the small cats. And, we must not let the spots and the stripes fade in ignorance.
I finally revised a 2008 Mongabay interview of Dr Jim Sanderson, a PhD in mathematics who re-educated himself for small cats after spending 20 years with math. He is now a global voice in small cat conservation. I feel hopeful again. Who knows, after reading this issue, Bangladesh will get some young heart in small cat research. Passion, patience and persistence, as said by Dr. Sanderson, are all that matter.
I start stroking Bing Bing again. She loves to walk over my keyboard. And, the connection is primordial.
SMALLEST OF THE SMALL CATS
This small cat can attain a maximum length of 20 inches. It lives in desert, arid habitat. Range of sand cat goes from the Sahara to the Arabian Peninsula to the Central Asia. This amazing species can take down deadly snakes and survive long without water.
This species is restricted to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. This one also never exceeds 20-inch mark. Though small, black-footed cat was once at the brink of extinction driven by bushmeat hunting, persecution and trafficking. Its population is slowly recovering now.
It stands champion in the list of the smallest wild felines. Often mistaken as a kitten lost in the jungle, the cat grows only about 19 in. It is also one of the least-known species. Once considered a species endemic to the Southern India and Sri Lanka, now, its known range covers the entire Central India and few places of Nepal.