Wild Cats of Sumatra

Sumatra is just half an hour from here. I’ve never visited it, but I’m awfully curious. So, I was excited to hear today that the World Wildlife Fund put cameras in the forest there and caught pictures of 5 species of wild cats! You can see them here:

• World Wildlife Fund, Remarkable images of big cats urge forest protection.

I’ve been curious about the smaller wild cats of Asia ever since I met this absurdly sweet thing which belongs to a friend of mine named Julia Strauss:


Julia lives in London, but she went all the way to Wales to buy this cat. Why? Because it’s a Bengal. That means it’s a crossbreed of an ordinary domestic cat with a leopard cat!

The leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis, is the most widespread of the Asian small cats. It has a huge range, from the Amur region in the Russian Far East through Korea, China, Indochina, India… all the way to the Pakistan in the west… and to Philippines and some islands in Indonesia in the south. It’s listed as ‘least vulnerable’ to extinction.

So, it’s not surprising that leopard cats are one of the kinds the WWF saw in Sumatra. Here’s one in the Berlin Zoo, photographed by F. Spangenberg:

Ain’t it cute? It’s about the size of a domestic cat, but it has a different number of chromosomes than Felis domesticus, so it’s a bit remarkable that they can interbreed. The resulting Bengals share some traits with the leopard cat: or example, leopard cats like to fish, and Bengals like to play around in their water bowls!

Another cat the WWF saw in Sumatra is the marbled cat, Pardofelis marmorata. It’s again about the same size as a house cat, but it likes to hunt while climbing around in trees!

This feisty fellow is listed as ‘vulnerable;—there are probably about 10,000 of them in the world, not counting kittens. They live from the Himalayan foothills westward into Nepal and eastward into southwest China, and also on Sumatra and Borneo.

Then there’s the Asian golden cat, Pardofelis temminckii. These guys are two to three times as big as a domestic cat! I saw one at the Night Safari in Singapore—a kind of zoo for nocturnal animals. Here’s a picture of one taken by Karen Stout:

They live all the way from Tibet, Nepal, and India to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, to down here around Malaysia and Sumatra. However, they’re listed as ‘near threatened’, due to hunting and habitat loss. They’re hunted for the illegal wildlife trade, and some people kill it for eating poultry—and also supposedly sheep, goats and buffalo calves.

Moving further up the size ladder, we meet the Sunda clouded leopard, Neofelis diardi. Here’s a great photo by ‘spencer77′:

These guys are special! They only live on Borneo and Sumatra, they’re listed as “vulnerable”, and scientists only realized they’re a separate species in 2006! Before that, people thought they were the same as the ordinary kind of clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa. But genetic testing showed that they diverged from that species about 1.4 million years ago, after having crossed a now submerged land bridge to reach Borneo and Sumatra.

I’ve seen the ordinary kind of clouded leopard at the Night Safari. But calling them ‘ordinary’ is not really fair: they’re beautiful, mysterious, well-camouflaged beasts—very hard to see even if you know they’re right in front of you! Indeed, very little is known about either kind of clouded leopard, because they’re so elusive and reclusive.

And finally, the biggest kitty on the island: the Sumatran tiger, Panthera tigris sumatrae! It’s a subspecies of tiger that only lives on Sumatra. It’s listed as “critically endangered”. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are fewer than 500 of these tigers left in the wild—maybe a lot fewer.

This beauty was photographed in the Berlin Zoo by ‘Captain Herbert’:

Sumatran tigers have webbing between their toes, which makes them really good swimmers! They get up to 2.5 meters long, but they’re is the smallest of tigers, as you might expect from a species on a hot tropical island. (The biggest is the Siberian tiger, which I talked about earlier.)

There are lots of palm oil plantations in Sumatra. People burn down the jungle to plant palms, and the smoke sometimes creates a thick smelly haze even here in Singapore. It’s horrible. This deforestation is the main threat to the Sumatran Tiger. Also, many tigers are killed every year by poachers.

On the bright side, in 2006 the Indonesia Forestry Service, the Natural Resources and Conservational Agency, and the Sumatran Tiger Conservation Program sat down with companies including Asia Pulp & Paper and set up the Senepis Buluhala Tiger Sanctuary, which is 106,000 hectares in size. There’s also a large area for tigers called the Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation on the southern tip of Sumatra. And the Australia Zoo has a program of reintroducing tigers to their natural habitat in Sumatra.

Okay, that’s it for now. I’ve got you all softened up, and I’m not even going to ask you for donations. Just be nice to cats, okay? Or better yet, be nice to life in general. We’re all in this together.

5 Responses to Wild Cats of Sumatra

  1. Allen K. says:

    On making Bengals: the two cats can just barely interbreed — the male offspring are sterile. So one breeds the half-breed female (an “F1″) with a domestic, and the males are again sterile. So one breeds the quarter-breed female (an “F2″) with a domestic, … finally the F4s may have males that can breed. We had one that had 7 nipples. Breeders aren’t supposed to sell the F1-F3s.

    One time I was looking for him to bathe him (I’m allergic). Where’d he go? Oh, there he is, in the bath already, water up to his neck!

    • John Baez says:

      Cool! If these F4′s do what comes naturally and breed with other cats, it’ll bring scads of new genes into the Felis domesticus gene pool. That could be good…

      Anyone know other species of cats that can (perhaps with work like Allen described) interbreed with domestic cats?

      I think a domestic version of the Asian golden cat would look very nice—it’s just about as big as a cat can be without me getting really scared of it.

      But don’t worry, I’m not an idiot: I don’t think that something would be a good pet just because it looks very nice. Asian golden cats are very shy, and probably fierce when bothered, so they’d probably make terrible pets.

      Hmm, actually maybe a cat 2 or 3 times the size of a house cat would already scare me. I don’t think it would try to eat me, but…

      • The scary cat don’t need to want to eat you. Once I was friend with a 15y old house cat, sole survivor of the road nearby. She didn’t like the new Husky dog around. So she waited for him in a dark corner and smacked out one of his eyes. (Well, almost – it took elaborate and expensive surgery to save the eye).

        My favorite wildcat is the Lynx. I’ve once lived near a European Lynx breeding station in the Bavarian Forest. They can pretend to be even more lazy than a house cat. The most pretty is perhaps the Iberian Lynx:

        The Rare & Exotic Feline Registry lists breed names like American Lynx. But they have no Lynx genes.

        One species that has indeed been interbred with domestic cat is the African Serval (leptailurus serval).

        The result is the amazing Savannah breed.

  2. John Baez says:

    If anyone knows the other two species of cats that live on Sumatra—the two the WWF failed to photograph—I’d like to hear it!

    Borneo is also very close to Singapore. In my wanderings, I ran into this:

    ‘Extinct’ wild cat spotted in Borneo, News 24, 13 January 2011.

    Kuala Lumpur – One of the world’s rarest wild cats, an elusive creature once thought to be extinct, has been spotted in camera traps in Malaysian Borneo for the first time since 2003, researchers have said.

    The Bornean Bay Cat, a long-tailed reddish or grey feline the size of a large domesticated cat, was sighted in the northern highlands of Malaysia’s Sarawak state, the forest department said on Thursday.

    Three photographs showing two or three individuals were captured, bringing new hope for the future of the endangered animal about which very little is known, said research officer Wilhelmina Cluny.

    “This species is very secretive… it was classified as extinct until a photograph of it was taken in 2003,” she said.

    “I do feel encouraged, this photograph was taken in a logged forest… when we saw this it made us wonder whether this kind of habitat can sustain wildlife, even for rare and important species like the bay cat.”

    “We had been looking for any mammals and this bay cat came up, it’s quite exciting that we got the photograph.”

  3. [...] a quick followup to our discussion of the wild cats of Sumatra [...]

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