Trying to find one of the rarest cats in existence

I remember my first wild cat capture. It was early 2011 and I’d already been camera-trapping for a couple of months in various sites by this point. I’d just had a tough few days collecting in cameras and was perched on the edge of my hammock with a bunch of memory cards to flick through, freshly pulled from the field. It was just before dinner, the “six o’clock” cicadas had started their nightly ritual of piercing, staccato calls, and the steady hum of the camp generator could be heard in the background. I was pretty tired, not to mention hungry, at this point and was more-or-less absent-mindedly flicking through picture after picture of bearded pigs and mousedeer.

Just then, something suddenly made me jolt to a stop, before I’d even comprehended what I’d seen. Flicking back quickly, there it appeared: the magnificent sight of a clouded leopard male’s head in the bottom corner of the image. Then, like a ghostly apparition, it promptly disappeared. This was totally unexpected to me and, to put it mildly, I was overjoyed (like this perhaps). It was an exhilarating and satisfying experience to have camera-trapped this most rare and mysterious of top predators. But it also had much wider implications, since this was evidence that clouded leopards were hanging on despite the intense logging. I ran down to the dinner table still in shock at what I’d seen and promptly showed everyone, half wanting confirmation I hadn’t just imagined it!

We’d had reasonable expectations of capturing the leopard cat, an adaptable species across its large distribution in Southeast Asia, but had not really expected to pick up any of the other wild cat species in such a disturbed area of forest. No sightings, not even of pug marks, of the clouded leopard had been reported during the SAFE project’s setup phase, which had been going on for some 12 months at that point. I’d assumed, sadly, that the forest had just been pushed too far. After the clouded leopard, other species started appearing in the cameras, like the marbled cat and orangutan, and I soon began to realize it was all still there, just exceedingly good at avoiding us! Today, we have nearly 60 species of mammal recorded from this most disturbed of forests!

In this context, some months after this, a strange animal entered the scene of one particular camera trap I was going through. Again, I flicked back and watched carefully as the video-like sequence advanced slowly. But my brain was drawing a blank. Masked palm civet – no. Flat-headed cat – no. Fossa – no, that’s in Madagascar! I’d dismissed all notion of ever getting the bay cat in my study sites, but all the evidence pointed to me having just seen one! No, no, no, surely not. Cue more swearing, frantic comparisons with other cat species I’d camera-trapped, and then the strange, unbelievable conclusion that I was holding a camera trap in my hand that had been within a whisker’s breadth of a live, wild bay cat. I had just not imagined in my wildest dreams that bay cats, as well as the other wild cats I’d picked up, were living on in these highly-disturbed forests.

I knew almost nothing about the bay cat at this point and, frustratingly, we don’t know too much more about it now. This most elusive of species has been called “the world’s least known” cat species. It was only known from a few specimens collected in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, and was thought to be extinct, until a live individual was caught by hunters in 1992 and brought to a museum on the point of death. This confirmed it was still in existence and indeed was a valid species in its own right. It took until 2003 until a photograph of it in the wild was captured. We don’t know what they eat, how long they live or how big an area they need to survive. All we know is that they are primarily terrestrial, and occur in two colour phases: a grey form and a red form (we’ve only found the red form in our study area). 

One of the earliest, and most striking, results from my work in the Kalabakan Forest Reserve (SAFE project area) was just the sheer number of times we were picking up the bay cat. This led to me quickly drafting a paper quantifying just how exceptional, given past camera-trapping efforts for this species by other researchers, our result was. The answer was, it was very exceptional: about a 10 times higher trapping rate. We went on to show that this effect, yes, was partly the unusual abundance seemingly present at SAFE, but mostly it was due to the way I’d placed my cameras. 

We used random locations for our cameras in this study, something which has only been done in one other study so far, on the other side of the world, in Panama. Researchers almost always use roads, salt-licks, water points, established walking paths and other easy-to-access areas. In sampling theory, we might call this “convenience sampling”, and it’s looked upon with disdain in almost all areas of science! The reason is obvious: if you put your camera at a location which some species actively seek out, and others actively avoid, you aren’t going to get an accurate picture of the relative abundance of the different species, and may miss some (like the bay cat) altogether.

Using random sampling meant putting cameras in areas our camera-trapping instincts were screaming at us not to waste our time with: rock faces, landslides, the middle of an ant-infested vine tangle, you name it. Invariably, something always cropped up and, anecdotally, some of our most exciting rarities (such as banded linsang, Malay weasel and female clouded leopards with cubs) were found in areas we might have bunked off, had I not been such a methodology pedant. For the bay cat’s part, it seemed to avoid the “convenient” locations, with 7 out of 8 of our captures occurring well away from trails. Even the one capture “on-trail” was an individual quickly crossing an overgrown logging road, not walking along its length like a clouded leopard might.

Using random locations we may have solved another mystery – where are all the female clouded leopards? We would expect a more-or-less equal sex ratio in clouded leopard populations, but camera trap studies usually record lots more males. Our data showed that this was because females actively avoid the trails and roads commonly used by camera-trappers in the past. We’d expect this to be especially the case if they have cubs (which one of our females did), to reduce the risk of infanticide from the large males which do commonly use these access routes.

In light of what we found, we think that random locations in camera-trapping should be much more widely used than they are now, and the technological barriers towards this are just now on the verge of being overcome. For example, just 10 years back, scientists were still widely using 35mm film cameras in camera-trapping, which meant they needed to keep visiting cameras to change the film roll! Now we have tiny memory cards which can store tens of thousands of images, and even solar-powered cameras which can run indefinitely. This means we can take bigger risks when we’re placing cameras. We can start going off trail and put cameras in areas which might not record that many images of the big charismatic species, like tigers, but which might pick up real rarities, like the bay cat.

Besides the bay cat and the clouded leopard, we also found three other species of wild felid: the leopard cat, marbled cat and flat-headed cat (which has been directly observed in the area). As a result, the Kalabakan Forest Reserve is now one of only four forest areas in the whole of Borneo – the third largest island in the world – where we know all five species of Bornean wild felid co-exist.  And it’s the most disturbed of the forest areas on this list so far (the others being: Danum Valley Conservation Area – renowned for its pristine state; Deramakot Forest Reserve – renowned for being Southeast Asia’s first FSC certified rainforest, and Tabin Wildlife Reserve – not logged at all in recent decades, and renowned for being one of only two confirmed homes of the Sumatran rhino in Borneo).

So what is the significance of finding all five cat species in the Kalabakan Forest Reserve, and does it mean we can just go on logging until the cows come home?

Pristine forests are rare now in Southeast Asia, and most of Malaysia’s remaining primary forest has already been gazetted in protected areas. Logged forests, on the other hand, are extensive (see here) and under intense threat from the expansion of agricultural land in the region, mainly for oil palm. They are also generally undervalued for their biodiversity. Our findings for wild cats, as well as those of other recent studies on small mammals, birds and insects, suggest that logged forests retain most of the biodiversity that the original primary forest contained. Greater emphasis, therefore, needs to go into conserving these areas and shifting the burden of agricultural expansion onto non-forest areas which have already been cleared and are sitting idle. However, logged forests are not suitable for conserving all biodiversity, and many species which are dependent on tall, old-growth trees may disappear with logging. We’re also not sure of the long-term viability of species in logged forest. Effects may take time to materialise, so it would always be best to take a precautionary approach and conserve primary forests wherever they remain. So, in short, no we should not log until the cows come home.

Specifically for the bay cat, there are two other reasons: 1) we found the bay cat in relatively more intact pockets of the overall highly-disturbed concession, and 2) within that, the bay cat appeared to avoid the skid-trails (used by tractors to pull out logs) and main logging roads, suggesting it is intolerant of these more open areas. Most likely, the bay cat does not necessarily benefit from logging (in the same way that some herbivore species do, due to an increased quantity of browse at the ground level) and only tolerates logging up to a threshold level (which would need to be determined by future work).

You can read the science behind all this in a paper we published in the open access (free to access!) PLOS ONE journal:

Our findings got quite a bit of press coverage (see below), which has led to this paper being read nearly 2,000 times and linked to (e.g. on Facebook and Twitter) 8,600 times in just the first couple of weeks of it being up (as of 18/11/13).

Here’s a short video presenting the images of the bay cat in question (including terrible narration by me, during a thunderstorm at the Maliau Basin field centre)


PS Take a look at the following links for some of the media coverage. Note that this coverage mostly did not reflect the content of the actual paper, and focused on the bay cat “re-discovery” angle. Some of the articles mistakenly report us finding flat-headed cats with our cameras – this isn’t true, for the reasons given in the paper. (The Guardian) (Discovery Channel) (National Geographic) (NBC News) (Huffington Post) (Fox News)
And my personal fave (in Spanish unfortunately) (El Mundo)

This entry was posted in Conservation, Field work, Logging, Rainforest Fauna, Scientific Research and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Trying to find one of the rarest cats in existence

  1. Oliver Tallowin says:

    Whatcha Ollie, truly inspirational research your doing in Borneo. I have to say I feel fairly ashamed of my lack of blogging on the PNG expeditions. One thing keeping field dairies, but its another to make them public and let others share in the discoveries. Be great to catch up again and share stories.
    All the best, Ollie (fc)

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