Listed as ‘Least Concern’ by IUCN in 2002 the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), a small-sized wild cat, inhabits South and East Asia. It has been given this name because it has leopard-like spots that are common in all its subspecies, but its relation to the ‘Big Cat’ leopard is remote. It is widely distributed but threatened by habitat loss and hunting in parts of its range. Some of its subspecies are diurnal, but most are nocturnal.
They are about the size of a domestic cat with more slender body, longer legs and well-defined webs between the toes. Their small head is marked with two prominent dark stripes and short and narrow muzzle is white. There are two dark stripes running from the eyes to the ears, and smaller white streaks running from the eyes to the nose. The cats have moderately long and rounded ears whose back side is black with a central white spot. Body and limbs have black spots of varying size and color, and along the back are two to four rows of elongated spots. The base color of spotted fur is yellowish-brown. Tail is about half the size of the head-body-length and spotted with a few indistinct rings near the black tip. Chest and belly is white.
In their vast range, they differ so much in size and coloration of spots, in body size and weight that initially they were thought to be several different species. The fur color is pale silver-grey in the northern populations, but tawny in the southern ones. The black markings may be rosetted, spotted or even forming dotted streaks, depending on the subspecies. Leopard cats found in the tropics have a head-body-length of 38.8 to 66 cm (15.3 to 26 in) with a 17.2 to 31 cm (6.8 to 12 in) long tail. They weigh 0.55 to 3.8 kg (1.2 to 8.4 lb). Those found in Siberia and northern China weigh up to 7.1 kg (16 lb), and have a head-body-length of up to 75 cm (30 in); usually, they put on weight before winter and become thinner until spring. Shoulder height is about 41 cm (16 in).
First described in 1792
Robert Kerr first described leopard cat in 1792 under the binominal nomenclature Felis bengalensis in his translation of Carl von Linné’s Systema Naturae as being native to southern Bengal in India. Between 1829 and 1922, various authors of 20 more descriptions classified it either as Leopardus or Felis. Due to variations in fur color, leopard cats from British India were described as Felis nipalensis from Nepal, Leopardus ellioti from the area of Bombay (on the west coast of India), Felis wagati and Felis tenasserimensis from Tenasserim (in modern Myanmar). In 1939, Reginald Innes Pocock subordinated them to the genus Prionailurus. He proposed to make distinction between a southern subspecies Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis from warmer latitudes to the west and east of the Bay of Bengal, and a northern Prionailurus bengalensis horsfieldi from the Himalayas, having a fuller winter coat than the southern. His description of the animal from the areas of Gilgit and Karachi (modern Pakistan) under the trinomen nomenclature Prionailurus bengalensis trevelyani is based on seven skins that had longer, paler and more grayish fur than those from the Himalayas. He assumed that trevelyani inhabits more rocky, less forested habitats than bengalensis and horsfieldi.
Between 1837 and 1930, skulls and skins from China were described as Felis chinensis, Felis scripta, Felis microtis, Leopardus reevesii, decolorata, ricketti, ingrami, anastasiae and sinensis, and later grouped under the trinomen Felis bengalensis chinensis. In the beginning of the 20th century, a British explorer collected wild cat skins on the island of Tsushima. Oldfield Thomas classified them as Felis microtis, which had been first described by Henri Milne-Edwardsin 1872.
Daniel Giraud Elliot wrote a detailed description of Felis euptilura in 1871 after seeing two skins from Siberia. The ground color of both was light tawny, strongly mixed with grey and covered with auburn spots, head grey with a dark-red stripe across the cheek. In 1922, Tamezo Mori described a similar but lighter grey spotted skin from the vicinity of Mukden in Manchuria, which he named Felis manchurica. Later both were grouped under the trinomen Felis bengalensis euptilura (or euptilurus). About half-a-century later in 1970s-80s, Russian zoologists Geptner, Gromov and Baranova expressed their disagreement with this classification. They highlighted the dissimilarities of skins and skulls at their disposal and the ones originating from Southeast Asia, and coined the term Amur forest cat, which they regarded as a distinct species. In 1987, a group of Chinese zoologists pointed out the morphological similarities in leopard cats from northern China, Amur cats and the specimen from southern latitudes and rejected the idea of classifying the Amur cat as a distinct species.
Distribution and habitat
They are the most widely distributed Asian small cats. Their range extends from the Amur region in the Russian Far East over the Korean Peninsula, Indochina, China, Indian Subcontinent, to the West in northern Pakistan, and to the south in the Philippines and the Sunda islands of Indonesia. They prefer forested habitats but are also found in agriculturally used areas. They inhabit tropical evergreen rainforests and plantations at sea level, in subtropical deciduous and coniferous forests in the foothills of the Himalayas at altitudes above 1,000 m (3,300 ft). A leopard cat was camera trapped in 2009 in Nepal’s Makalu-Barun National Park at an altitude of 3,254 m (10,676 ft).
Ecology and behavior
Some Leopard cats are active during the day, but most prefer dead of the night to hunt. These spotted cats are agile climbers and quite arboreal in their habits. They usually rest in trees, but also take shelter in dense thorny undergrowth on the ground. While in oil palm plantations of Sabah, they have been seen up to 4 m (13 ft) above ground hunting birds, beetles and rodents. Males have larger home ranges compared to females, averaging 3.5 km2 (1.4 sq mi) and 2.1 km2 (0.81 sq mi) respectively. Each male’s range overlaps one or more female ranges.
They are able to swim quite efficiently, but seldom do so. They produce a similar range of vocalizations to the domestic cat. Both sexes scent mark their territory by scratching, spraying urine, head rubbing and leaving feces in exposed locations.
Like all cats Leopard cats too are carnivorous. They feed on variety of small prey including lizards, mammals, birds, amphibians and even insects. Usually small rodents such as rats and mice form the major part of their diet, which is often supplemented with grass, eggs, poultry, and aquatic prey. They are active hunters, dispatching their prey with a rapid pounce and bite. Unlike many other small cats, they do not “play” with their food, instead maintain a tight grip with their claws until the animal is dead. Reason for this unique behavior perhaps is that their diet includes relatively high proportion of birds, which are more likely to escape when released than are rodents.
No fixed breeding period
Leopard cats found in the southern part of its range have no fixed breeding period, but those living in the colder northern range tend to breed around March or April, when the weather is mild enough to support newborn kittens. These cats have estrus period for 5 to 9 days. After a gestation period of 60–70 days female searches out a suitable place like rock shelter or crevice where it gives birth to two to four kittens, where they remain until they are a month old. At birth kittens weigh about 75 to 130 grams (2.6 to 4.6 oz) and usually double their weight by age of two weeks; they are four times their birth weight when they are five weeks old. Kittens are born blind and their eyes open when they are ten days old, and start to eat solid food at 23 days. At the age of four weeks, their permanent canines appear, and the kittens begin to eat solid food. If young ones do not survive, the female may come into heat again and can produce another litter same year. Leopard cats have been found living up to thirteen years in captivity.
They usually pair for life and raise their young together for about 7 to 10 months. Full maturity is reached at 18 months, but in captivity, the male can become ready to breed at 7 months, and the female at 10 months.
Threats : Trade in body parts
The species is being hunted throughout most of its range. In China it is killed mainly for the fur. According to one statistics between 1984 and 1989, about 200,000 skins were exported yearly. A survey conducted in 1989 among major fur traders revealed more than 800,000 skins on stock. After the imposition of import ban in 1988 by the European Union, Japan has become the main buyer, and imported 50,000 skins in 1989. Although commercial trade is much reduced, the hunting and trapping of species continues throughout most of its range for fur, food, and for pet trade. They are also widely viewed as poultry pests and killed in retribution.
Between 1991 and 2006 four markets were surveyed in Myanmar where 483 body parts of at least 443 individuals were found to be on sale. Numbers were significantly larger than non-threatened species. Three of the four surveyed markets are on the international borders with Thailand and China, and cater to international buyers, although the animal is completely protected under Myanmar’s law. Effective implementation and enforcement of CITES is considered inadequate.
Prionailurus bengalensis is listed in CITES Appendix II. In Hong Kong, the species is protected under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance Cap 170. Though the population is declining it is still well over 50,000 individuals and is not endangered.
The Tsushima leopard cat is listed as critically endangered on the Japanese Red List of endangered species. It is the focus of a conservation program funded by the Japanese government since 1995.
Leopard cat as pet
Leopard cat can be kept as a pet, but a license is required in most places and its requirements and conditions vary from location to location.
The Asian leopard cat (P. bengalensis bengalensis) is often mated with a domestic cat to produce hybrid offspring known as a Bengal cat. These hybrids are usually permitted to be kept as pets without a license.
Distribution of subspecies
There are twelve leopard cat subspecies, which differ widely in appearance. As of 2009, the following subspecies are recognized:
- Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis (Kerr, 1792) — The Asian leopard cat, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, Indochina to Yunnan in China;
- Prionailurus bengalensis javanensis (Desmarest, 1816) — Java and Bali;
- Prionailurus bengalensis sumatranus (Horsfield 1821) — Sumatra and Tebingtinggi;
- Prionailurus bengalensis chinensis (Gray 1837) — Taiwan and China except Yunnan;
- Prionailurus bengalensis horsfieldi (Gray 1842) — Kashmir, Punjab, Kumaon, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan;
- Prionailurus bengalensis euptilurus/euptilura, the Amur cat, (Elliott 1871) — eastern Siberia, in Manchuria, in Korea and on the Tsushima Island in the Korea Strait;
- Prionailurus bengalensis borneoensis (Brongersma 1936) — Borneo;
- Prionailurus bengalensis trevelyani (Pocock 1939) — northern Kashmir and Punjab, and in southern Baluchistan;
- Prionailurus bengalensis alleni (Sody, 1949) — Hainan Island;
- Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis The Iriomote cat, (Imaizumi, 1967) — found exclusively on the tiny island of Iriomote, one of the Ryukyu Islands in the Japanese Archipelago;
- Prionailurus bengalensis heaneyi (Groves 1997) — the Philippine island of Palawan;
- Prionailurus bengalensis rabori (Groves 1997) — the Philippine islands of Negros, Cebu, and Panay.