Asian Golden Cat : One of the least studied felid

Asian Golden cat (photo - Karen Stout) CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the least studied cats in tropical Asia, the Asian golden cat (Pardofelis temminckii, syn. Catopuma temminckii) is also known by the names of Asiatic golden cat and Temminck’s cat. This medium-sized wild cat of Southeastern Asia was classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN in 2008, stating that it comes close to qualifying as Vulnerable due to habitat loss and hunting pressures, since Southeast Asian forests are undergoing the world’s fastest regional deforestation.

Resembles with African Golden Cat

The species has been named in the honor of Coenraad Jacob Temminck, a Dutch  zoologist,  who first described the African golden cat in 1827. Asian golden cat was once believed to be closely related to the African Golden Cat (Profelis aurata, syn. Caracal aurata) although the two are separated by about 6,500 km.

Recent genetic analysis has established that despite many physical similarities species are not related, their close resemblance is more likely an example of convergent evolution. Other factor that supports this view is that the forests of Africa and Asia have not been connected in over 20 million years. The species they are related to is the Bay cat of Borneo. Both have somewhat similar appearance and behavior and the genetic studies have also confirmed the relationship.

The Asian golden cat is found in Sumatra and Malaysia, which separated from Borneo only about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. These observations led to the belief that the Borneo bay cat is an insular subspecies of the Asian golden cat. Genetic studies have proved that the Asian golden cat, along with the Bay cat and the Marbled cat, separated from the other felids approximately 9.4 million years ago and the Asian golden cat and the Bay cat separated as long as four million years ago, indicating that the Bay cat was a different species long before the isolation of Borneo. Because of the evident close relationship with the marbled cat, it has been recently suggested that all three species should be clubbed together in the genus Pardofelis.

Characteristics

The Asian golden cat is a sturdily built, with a typical cat-like appearance. Having fairly long legs they are medium-sized cats with uniformly colored pelage, but highly variable, ranging from fox-red to golden-brown, dark brown to pale cinnamon, and gray to black. Melanistic examples are not uncommon. They are about two to three times heavier than the domestic cats, with weight ranging from 9 to 16 kg. Their head-body length ranges from 66 to 105 cm, with 40 to 57 cm long tail and the height at the shoulders reaching 56 cm.

Comparison between Golden and Fishing Cat skulls

The moderate length, dense coat is generally unmarked, but the transitional forms among the different colorations also exist. Cats inhabiting more northerly regions often have spots and stripes. Specimens with leopard-like spots have been found in China, resembling large Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). This spotted fur is a recessive characteristic.

The most conspicuous features of Asian golden cat are the white lines bordered with black running across the cheeks, and from the inner corners of the eye up to the crown, while the short, rounded ears are black with a central whitish area. As with most cats, the underside and inner legs are white, and there is a white patch on the underside of the last part of the long tail. Eyes are usually grayish green or amber.

Subspecies 

Three subspecies of Asian Golden Cat has been recognized:

  • Pardofelis temminckii tristis — found in southwest China.
  • Pardofelis temminckii dominicanorum — found in southeast China.
  • Pardofelis temminckii temminckii — found in the Southeast Asian mainland, Himalayas and Sumatra.

These trinomials do not yet reflect the taxonomic re-classification accepted since 2006.

Reproduction 

Since the Asian golden cat is one of the least studied, not much is known about its reproductive behavior in the wild. Whatever knowledge we have has been acquired from the cats in captivity. As far as females are concerned they become sexually mature between the age of 18 and 24 months, whereas males attain maturity when they are two years or 24 months old.

During breeding season females come into estrus every 39 days. This is the time when they leave markings and seek out males by adopting receptive postures. During intercourse, male seizes female’s neck skin with his teeth, just like lions do.

Gestation period in these attractive Asian carnivores lasts from 78 to 80 days, after which a litter of one to three blind kittens is delivered. Each kitten weighs 220 to 250 grams at birth. In the first eight weeks their weight and size triples. They are born with longer and thicker coat than the adults, but show no pattern. Color is also slightly darker than the adults and eyes are opened six to twelve days after the birth. They are weaned at six months. In captivity, they live for up to twenty years.

These cats were fairly common in European zoos in the past, although their reproductive rate was not particularly good. There is also a high occurrence of females being killed by their mates, even in well established pairs.

Distribution and habitat

Asian golden cats live throughout Southeast Asia, ranging from India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh to Myanmar, Southern China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Sumatra, but not on the island of Borneo. These nocturnal forest dwelling cats prefer tropical and sub-tropical evergreen forests, but they are found to be occasionally frequenting more open areas with rocky tracts. They have also been seen in the grasslands of Assam’s Manas National Park. In parts of China they are known as the ‘rock cats’. In altitude, they range from the lowlands to over 3,000 m (9,800 ft) in the Himalayas.

In Laos, they are also found in the scrub, bamboo regrowth and degraded forests from the Mekong plains to the elevation of 1,100 m (3,600 ft). Surveys in the protected areas of Sumatra and in the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in northern Laos have shown that they are more common than sympatric (two species or populations are considered sympatric when they exist in the same geographic area and thus regularly encounter one another) small cats, suggesting that they are more plentiful than previously believed. Surveys in India’s western Arunachal Pradesh, northern Myanmar and Thailand revealed fewer individuals.

Map showing distribution of Asian Golden Cat

In Sikkim’s Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve, they were camera-trapped at elevations up to 3,960 m (12,990 ft). Camera trap photos of both the spotted and the more common reddish forms have been taken in Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park at an altitude of 3,738 m (12,264 ft), setting a record for high altitude sightings.

Since Hodgson’s description in 1831 of a male individual in Nepal under the binomial Felis moormensis, the country is believed to be the westernmost part of the felid’s range. However, no specimen has been recorded in the country, until May 2009 when a camera trap survey yielded the first photographic record of a melanistic Asian golden cat in Makalu Barun National Park at an altitude of 2,517 m (8,258 ft).

During a field study in Thailand, an adult female was found to be occupying a home range of 32.6 sq km, which was overlapped 78 per cent by a male’s range, spread over an area of 47.7 sq km. It was also found that the Asian golden cats’ ranges were 20 per cent bigger than those of the Clouded Leopard, although the two cats were similar in activity and distance travelled.

Ecology and behavior

These felines are highly territorial and solitary in nature. Earlier observations indicated that they are mainly nocturnal, but the activity levels of two radio-collared cats in Thailand found to be arrhythmic. Their activity pattern dominated by crepuscular and diurnal activity peaks, with much less activity late at night, although some camera trap photos were obtained at night. Although little is known about their ecology, a study indicated that the male’s territory was about 48 sq km in size and increased by more than 15 per cent during the rainy season, while the female’s territory was spread over 32.5 sq km. Both were found to be more active in July than in March.

Although Asian golden cats can climb well, they spend most of their time on the ground, carrying their long tail curled up at the tip. They usually hunt large rodents, small ungulates such as barking deer or muntjacs, reptiles, birds and young sambar deer. They are powerful enough to bring down prey much larger than their own size, such as domestic water buffalo calves. In the mountain habitat of Sikkim, they have been found preying on ghorals or gorals (small ungulates with a goat-like or antelope-like appearance). Their killing technique is typical of felids – inflicting a powerful nape bite. In the case of birds they remove feathers before beginning to eat.

Their vocalizations include gurgling, growling, hissing, spitting, purring and meowing. Other methods of communication observed in captive animals include scent marking by raking trees and logs with claws, urine spraying and rubbing of the head against various objects, much like a domestic cat.

Asian Golden Cat with a piece of meat (GFDL & CC BY-SA 3.0)

Threats

Asian golden cats face major threat from habitat destruction as a result of deforestation, along with the fast declining prey base. Though the cat is protected by law in many Asian countries, hunting for the illegal wildlife trade is also inflicting major harm to this handsome feline. They are also killed in revenge for taking livestock like buffalo calves, poultry, sheep and goats.

Illegal wildlife trade

Between 1991 and 2006 four markets were surveyed in Myanmar and 111 body parts from at least 110 individuals were found being sold. Three markets were on the international borders with Thailand and China and they cater to international buyers, although the feline is fully protected under Myanmar’s national legislation. These cats are poached mainly for their fur. During the survey it was found that the numbers were significantly greater than those of non-threatened species. Among the skins was a specimen with ocelot-like rosettes — a rare tristis form. Successful execution and enforcement of CITES is considered inadequate.

Major threats include hunting for their bones and pelts. In some countries Asian golden cat’s meat is consumed by human beings as it is considered delicacy; whole animal is often roasted on a spit. Since the cats also prey on domestic animals like sheep, goat and poultry they often become target of the villagers’ ire.

Conservation

Although included in CITES Appendix – I and fully protected over most of its range, the population of Catopuma temminckii is decreasing in many countries. No factual information is available about their overall status in the wild and it is also difficult to have its actual estimate. As far as hunting is concerned it is prohibited in India, China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. In Laos regulated hunting is permitted. No information about protection status is available from Cambodia. Bhutan has provided protection to the felid only within the boundaries of protected areas.

It was regarded as abundant in many countries until the latter half of the 20th century, when poachers’ focus shifted away from leopards and tigers to this species. In China, it is reported to be the next rarest cat apart from tigers and leopards.

In captivity

There were 20 Asian golden cats in eight European zoos till December 2008. These specimens were included in the European Endangered Species Program. A pair in the German Wuppertal Zoo was successfully bred in 2007 and in July 2008, two siblings were born and mother-reared. In the year 2008, a female kitten was born in the French Parc des Felins. In addition to these, a few zoos in Southeast Asia and Australia are also known to be keeping these cats.

Mythology

There are legends attached to Asian golden cats in Myanmar and Thailand. In some regions of Thailand local tribesmen call the cat Seua fai which means “fire cat”. There is a belief that the burning of cat’s fur drives away even the tigers and eating its flesh also has the same effect. The Karen people, living both in Myanmar and Thailand, believe that simply carrying a single hair of Asian golden cat will give the bearer protection from tigers. Their bones are sometimes ground into powder to be given to children for treatment of fever. These people believe cat to be fierce, but in captivity it has been found to be quite submissive and tame.

In some places in China the cat is thought to be a kind of leopard and is called “rock cat” or “yellow leopard”. Different color phases have different names; cats with black fur are known as “inky leopards” and those with spotted fur as “sesame leopards”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *