Wild Cats of Sumatra

17 November, 2011

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.