The Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) is one of the only two indigenous species of feline in Taiwan, categorized as a leopard cat species, called leopard cat in English, so it is also named ‘leopard cat’. They are marked with coin like spots, so they are known as ‘coin cats’, and are also named ‘mountain cats’ after their active habitats in the mountains. Although leopard cats is cited as “leopards’, they are similar in size to domestic cats at around 3-6 kg. Characteristics include a short muzzle, round ears and slightly shorter tails which are about 40-50% of its head to body ratio. Bodily color range from grey to tawny, and coin-like brownish black spots span the body, limbs and tail fur.
Categorized as leopard cats, they have acute senses of vision, hearing and smell, and mainly appear at night or evenings, though sometimes in daylight. Leopard cats are solitary animals, secretive, agile and difficult to spot in the wild. However, they will mark territories and relay message by means of excrement, urine, claw marks and body odor. Leopard cat excrements can often be found in open areas under forests on hilltops, or in walkways and animals passes in between mountains.
Leopard cats feed mainly on small mammals including rats, mice, squirrels and wild rabbits, and stalk birds and also reptiles such as lizards and snakes or even insects. Leopard cats are the dominant species of the food chain. Their numbers fluctuate with the amount of animals lower on the food chain, and affect the working of ecological systems in the habitat. Leopard cats play an important role of controlling the number of rodents in their habitat of shallow mountains. Because rodents cause loss in agriculture, and the disease they spread is a threat to humans, this reminds us of the functions and importance nature has given leopard cats.
Broadleaf forest- Leopard cat habitat
Leopard cat habitats are distributed from the borderlines of Russia, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, South East Asia, India and the north of Pakistan. They are adapted to various habitats, including different altitudes and natural habitats such as wetlands, rain forests, broadleaf forests, coniferous forests or even habitats interfered by humans such as secondary forests, reclamation lands, palm gardens and fruit gardens. Although they can survive in these areas, human capture and use of leopard cats greatly affected their population, with fur trade as the main cause during earlier periods. In addition, environmental development and exploits in recent decades have dwindled, damaged and broken their natural habitats; along with circumstances following road construction such as road kills and foreign species have affected the leopard cat group.
Leopard cats have been listed as an endangered class 1 conservatory animal in Taiwan. Currently, only Miaoli county, Taichung city and Nantou county have records of sightings. Not even Chiayi county and Tainan county, which had records of leopard cats 10~20 years ago, have appearances in recent years. However, according to old files and research by Japanese scholars during the Japanese rule, it can be approximated that leopard cats are widely populated throughout lower altitudes in early Taiwan. 1956 records still indicate leopard cats as spread island wide, and it can still be said to have been so until 1974, but with only regional regular sightings. This shows the species distribution is narrowing by the year, with the group status is broken and fragmented.
In 2016, the Agriculture Bureau of the Taichung City Government entrusted the National Dong Hwa University with establishing “The 2016 Entrusted Research Program for the Investigation and Conservation of the Taichung Area Leopard Cat Population.” From September 2016 to January 2017, camera traps were installed in forty-one locations within the Houli, Dengshi, Xinshe, Shigang, Fengyuan, and Beitun districts. Among these, cameras at the Houli, Dengshi, and Xinshe locations successfully captured images of leopard cats. Results of the study will also be showcased in the Taichung World Flora Exposition.
Image of a leopard cat captured by a thermal imaging camera.
According to currently know threats faced by leopard cats, government-related departments, academics and civil organizations are continuing to promote leopard cat conservation works. They include (1) leopard cat distress notification, release and accommodation (2) training and releasing of orphan leopard cats to their native habitats to supplement local individuals and gene pool (3) construct animal passes and set up road signs to reduce road kills (4) concerns on leopard cat habitat development for lesser impact (5) conservation promotion (6) promotion of community conservation and environmental friendly industries. However, besides efforts in a variety of current works, in depth conservatory research in leopard cat ecology and deeper conservation actions are necessary. In particular, the conservational education of leopard cats is in need of more mutual efforts of promotion by the public, civil departments and groups, or even individual volunteers and the common participation of our social community.