Bay cat : highly endangered felid

Bay cat or Bornean Bay Cat (photo - Jim Sanderson) CC BY-SA 3.0

Bay cat (Pardofelis badia, syn. Catopuma badia), also known as the Bornean catBornean bay cat, or Bornean marbled cat, is the mystery member of the cat family. Nothing is known about their habits, behavior, ecology or reproductive biology. It’s a wild cat found only on the island of Borneo, a third-largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. It is relatively rare compared to sympatric felines. These cats have historically been recorded as rare and presently seem to occur at relatively low density, even in unspoiled habitat.

In the year 2002, IUCN classified it as Endangered because of a projected population decline by more than 20 per cent by the year 2020 due to habitat loss and deforestation. In 2007, the effective population size was assumed to be below 2,500 mature individuals.

Taxonomy and evolution

John Edward Gray first described bay cat under the binominal Felis badia in 1874 on the basis of a skin and skull collected in Sarawak in 1856. It was first thought to be a kitten of an Asian golden cat. Later, Reginald Innes Pocock, a British zoologist, placed the species in the monotypic genus Badiofelis in 1932. In 1978, it was placed under the genus Catopuma.

Morphological and genetic analysis of the tissue and blood samples, acquired in late 1992 from a female brought to the Sarawak Museum (it was caught on the Sarawak–Indonesian border and when brought to the Museum it was already on the verge of death), confirmed the animal’s close relationship with the Asian golden cat. It also showed that the two species had separated from a common ancestor 4.9 to 5.3 million years ago, long before the geological separation of Borneo from the Asian mainland.

Bay cat’s placement under the genus Catopuma was commonly recognized until 2006. Because of the obvious close relationship of the bay cat and the Asian golden cat with the marbled cat, all three species were suggested in 2006 to be grouped in the genus Pardofelis.

Characteristics

Earlier thought to be a small island form of the Asiatic Golden Cat (Pardofelis temminckii), genetic testing has proved it to be a unique species. This highly endangered cat is much smaller than the Asiatic golden cat. About the size of large house cat, its fur is uniformly bright chestnut in colour, rather paler beneath, faintly speckled with black markings and spots on limbs. A second colour phase of dark, bluish slate-grey has also been recorded.

The elongated tail is rather paler and redder, tapering at the end, with a white central streak occupying the rear half of the lower side, steadily becoming wider and of a purer white colour towards the tip. It has a small black spot at its upper end. The ears are rounded, covered with a short blackish-brown fur at the outer side, lacking the central white spots found on many other cat species, paler brown within and with a narrow brown margin.

Between 1874 and 2004, only 12 specimens were measured. Their head-to-body length varied from 49.5–67 cm and tail length 30 – to 40.3 cm. Adult cats were estimated to have weight of 3–4 kg, but very few living specimens have been obtained to allow a more reliable estimate.

Cat’s head is short, rounded, dark greyish-brown in colour with two dark stripes starting from the corner of each eye, and the back of the head has a dark ‘M’-shaped marking. Chin’s underside is white and two dim brown stripes are on the cheeks. Body size and the extremely long tail make it look like the New World jaguarundi.

Bay cat distribution map (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Distribution and habitat

Endemic to Borneo the cat is widely distributed on the island, but seems to be concentrated in the interior areas. Available information indicates they exist over a various habitat types, ranging from lowland, dipterocarp forest and swamp forests to hill forests up to at least 500 m (1,600 ft). There are also reports of their occurrences in dense tropical forests, rocky limestone outcrops and a few reports from regenerating logged forest and close to the coast. Nocturnal behavior and secretive nature of bay cats, and probably their low population density, may be an important cause of the rarity of sightings.

In the middle of 1990s, the most trustworthy sightings were reported from the Gunung Palung National Park and from the upper Kapuas River in West Kalimantan. One unconfirmed sighting was reported from Mount Kinabalu at the elevation of 1,800 m (5,900ft). At least three animals were found near rivers, but this was most likely due to collector convenience rather than substantiation of habitat preference. One bay cat was photographed in 2002 in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak. In Sabah, Kalimantan and Sarawak 15 bay cats were recorded between 2003 and 2005, but none was from Brunei. These records consist of single opportunistic observations. More or less all the historical and recent records are from close proximity to water bodies such as rivers and mangroves, indicating the cat may be closely associated with such habitats.

From July 2008 to January 2009 a survey was conducted on the basis of results of camera traps in the northwestern part of Sabah’s Deramakot Forest Reserve in an area covering about 112 km2. It yielded one picture of a male in a total sampling effort of 1916 trap nights. This record is a proof of expansion of the range of bay cats to the north.

Sattelite image of Borneo covered under the veil of smoke caused due to forest fires in 2002

It was in 1855, Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist, sent the first skull and skin of a bay cat from Sarawak to the British Museum of Natural History. A total of seven skins surfaced over the following decades, but a living cat was caught on the Sarawak–Indonesian border in 1992. It was brought to the Sarawak Museum while already on the verge of death. It was apparently caught by native trappers and kept in captivity for some months. This specimen offered the first opportunity to look at a whole animal.

The BBC Wildlife Magazine published photos of a live Borneo Bay Cat in 1998. The animal was measured, weighed, physically examined, photographed, dewormed and released back into the jungle. In another incident, researchers from the Bornean Clouded Leopard Program, during their study of five felids on Borneo, obtained camera trap pictures of the Bay Cat, which were taken in early morning, at midday and at night.

The secretive nature of these cats can be understood by the fact that between the years 2003–2006 camera trapping surveys yielded only one picture in 5,034 trap nights. Nothing is known about their feeding ecology and reproductive behavior.

Threats

These cats are highly forest-dependent; with habitat destruction in Borneo due to large scale deforestation their existence is becoming more and more threatened. The gravity of the problem can be understood by the fact that Borneo has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. While in mid-1980s, nearly three-quarters of the island was under forests, by 2005 forest cover came down to half (52 per cent). In addition to this Illegal wildlife trade is a widely spread practice there as both, the local trappers and animal dealers are well aware that foreign zoos and breeding facilities pay handsomely for a live animal, the price may go up to US$10,000 or more.

Although, the island theoretically has 25 wildlife reserves, but the fact is only three are actually existing, rest are only proposed. All of these reserves have been encroached upon by human settlement and logging. The real picture is that both forests and land have made way for human settlement.

Conservation

Pardofelis badia is listed on CITES Appendix II as Catopuma badia. The animal is completely protected by law across most of its range. Hunting and trade are banned in Sarawak, Kalimantan and Sabah. No bay cats are held in captivity. Outside of protected areas, habitat loss due to oil palm plantation and commercial logging is the main threat to the cat. A joint endeavor for conservation between the Nature Conservancy and an Indonesian timber company is providing sustainable development, which includes monitoring the impact of tree removal (5 trees per hectare) on wildlife.

With the growing number of scientists working in Borneo, the number of sightings of the cat has increased, but a detailed field study on the cat is urgently required.

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