Did you know that Bhutan is a hotspot of wild cat diversity? It is home to 11 species of wild cats which is about 30% of all wild cat species found in the world. Considering that Bhutan only covers .03% of the earth’s surface, that number seems even more amazing. Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park in central Bhutan alone is home to eight wild cat species which is perhaps the world’s highest number of wild cat species sharing a single space.
Bhutan has three big cats: tiger, snow leopard, common leopard; one medium-sized cat: clouded leopard and seven smaller wild cats: Pallas’s cat, leopard cat, marbled cat, Asiatic golden cat, jungle cat, lynx* and the fishing cat*.
Small wild cats of Bhutan
As a wildlife biologist, I study many of our cat species through camera trapping. Recently I have also started a tiger project in Bhutan using non-invasive genetics. While the big cats are always impressive, I also have a special interest in the lesser known small cats.
So let’s focus on the small wild cats of Bhutan. Mostly of the size of an ordinary house cat, they are charismatic, unique and just as awe-inspiring as their bigger cousins. They can be found across diverse habitats: in the plains, valleys, near rivers and wetlands, dense forests to alpine mountains and snow and also show different behavioral habits such as climbing trees and fishing. However, they can be challenging to see: they are shy, elusive and in Bhutan, the remoteness and abundant forest provide them the ideal cover to hide.
The small wild cats are one of the lesser knowns, and lesser studied group of animals in Bhutan. Very little information is available about their ecology and threats and unfortunately, the same is true for many small cat species around the world. The lack of knowledge, conservation funding, and attention belie their essential role in the ecosystem. Recent camera trapping exercises on tigers and snow leopards in the country by the Department of Forest and Park Services have provided some useful insights into their distribution. Here are five small wild cat species that have been successfully camera trapped in Bhutan:
Pallas’s cat or Manul is a rare small wild cat. They are fluffy and cute and are a high-altitude species living in the alpine grasslands and shrub steppes. They are known to occur in low numbers naturally and are habitat specialists making them highly vulnerable to threats such as habitat degradation, conversion, and climate change. They were first recorded in Bhutan in 2012 in Wangchuck Centennial National Park. In the same year, they were reported in the western part of Jigme Dorji National Park. These two locations are the only known distribution records of the species in the country. They are listed as Near-threatened on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
Also known as the Temminck’s cat, the Asiatic golden cat is a “feline of many costumes.” The species occur in four different coat colors known as morphs: golden, grey, melanistic and spotted. Interestingly all morphs are reported in Bhutan. At one instance in Bumthang in central Bhutan, individuals of all the four different morphs were recorded at the same locality, and few were observed to interact with each other socially. The golden cat is a habitat generalist, widely distributed and occurs from low elevations to more than 4000 meters. Previously thought to be rare, they now are frequently caught on camera traps in Bhutan. They are also listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
Primarily a species of the moist tropical forests, they have been recorded up to 3177 meters in Wangchuck Centennial National Park. The cat is reputed as one of the “fiercest of all cats.” They look like a smaller version of the clouded leopard and share a similar coat pattern. They have a long bushy tail which they use to balance their body while climbing trees or jumping from one branch to another. They are arboreal and secretive in nature and are rarely spotted by our camera traps. They are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
The leopard cats are the most widely distributed and the most common smaller cat species in Bhutan. They are also habitat generalists and can be found across numerous habitat types including in and around human settlements. Recently there have been cases of stranded leopard cat kittens being picked up by people. Leopard cat moms are often known to leave their kittens behind when they hunt, and people who come across the kittens mistakenly believe they are abandoned and in need of rescue. Historically, the leopard cat was thought to be rare and was listed as a protected species under the Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan 1995. However, today they are listed as Least Concern on the ICUN red list
Although known to be a common species, they are hard to camera trap. So far, they have been reported in only two national parks in Bhutan: Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park and the Royal Manas National Park. However, anecdotal accounts suggest that they are widespread and can be found near villages. They may easily be mistaken for a house cat to an inexperienced eye. They can be differentiated by a yellowish red tinge on their grey coat, and their ears have a small tuft of black hair at the tip. They are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN red list.
Species-specific studies are needed to generate baseline information on the small wild cats of Bhutan. Many feel that fishing cat and lynx must occur in the country and dedicated surveys in their ideal habitats would be an important step to confirm their range.
Overall, the small wild cats need attention from the global conservation community. Funding is a significant constraint on people who are passionate about small cat conservation. From 2007-2013, small cats have received less than 1% of the total conservation funding on all wild cats. In total, there are seven big cats but there are 33 small cat species, and so, they are a big part of the ecosystem and should be a priority. Just like the lions, tigers and snow leopards, they are also globally threatened by habitat loss and poaching. If we don’t start taking action now, many of them could be on the verge of extinction or even gone by the time we know and act.
Note: *the presence of lynx and fishing cats are based on anecdotal sources; however, they are expected to occur in Bhutan as they are found just across the border in India:fishing cat in Assamandlynx in Sikkim.
Wetlands—places where the land is covered by water, either salt, fresh, or somewhere in between—cover just over 6% of the Earth’s land surface. Sprinkled throughout every continent except Antarctica, they provide food, clean drinking water, and refuge for countless people and animals around the world. Despite their global significance, an estimated one-half of all wetlands on the planet have disappeared.
Amid the loss, one specific wetland stands out: the Pantanal. At more than 42 million acres, the Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland and one of the most pristine in the world. It sprawls across three South American countries—Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay—and supports millions of people there, as well as communities in the lower Rio de la Plata Basin.
WWF is working on the ground to conserve the region through the creation of protected areas and promoting sustainable use of natural resources.
Check out these facts about the Pantanal that every wetland enthusiast should know!
Every dollar you donate will support WWF’s efforts to save rhinos from extinction.
Rhinos, one of the oldest groups of mammals, are virtually living fossils. They once roamed across Africa’s savannas and Asia’s tropical forests, but today, very few rhinos survive outside of national parks and reserves.
Specifically, WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) in South Africa has been working with passion, commitment, and determination to ensure a brighter future for the critically endangered black rhino for more than a decade. BRREP works to grow black rhino numbers by creating new populations and provides equipment and training to rangers to monitor, manage, and protect rhinos.
[Note: This is the fourth blog in a series about the WCS-led marine megafauna survey, which is gathering data on whales, sea turtles, sharks, and other marine species inhabiting the coastal waters of Bangladesh. Data from the effort will identify biologically important locations for future consideration as marine protected areas.]
In 2011, I was in the middle of completing my post graduate degree in Nha Trang, Vietnam. I attended class every day to study fisheries management, hoping and wishing that sometime in the future, I would be out in the field using my expertise to help to make sustainability a reality.
Seven years later, I am now back in my home country to help lead an effort to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) for conserving the rich marine biodiversity of Bangladesh, a country that supports fisheries sustaining livelihoods for 50 million people living along the country’s 750-kilometer coast.
I am now back in my home country to help lead an effort to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) for conserving the rich marine biodiversity of Bangladesh. Credit: WCS Bangladesh.
The first phase of this effort is to conduct a comprehensive survey of marine megafauna, including dolphins, porpoises, whales, sharks, rays and marine turtles, and investigate fisheries that entangle and kill these threatened species. Covering the entire coast of Bangladesh, the overall goal of this survey is to use this information to identify potential sites for new protected areas. So far the survey has been the most exciting and possibly the most intense experience of my life.
When I first laid eyes on the two survey boats, I had mixed feelings: a gripping fear of sea sickness, and the excitement of being able to actually see the marine megafauna I had studied about in school. The first thing that struck me was the amazingly job our team did to modify the boats to safely and comfortably accommodate our entire survey team.
They built a covered space for sleeping and storing equipment along with a kitchen and basic bathroom facilities. They also equipped both vessels with a VHF radio to communicate with each other.
My seasickness improved on the second day and I Joined my colleagues onboard standing watches and collecting environmental data. Credit: WCS Bangladesh.
Alas my fears came true and I was sick on the first day. All I could think about was how I was embarrassing myself by not being able to stand my watches which entailed looking through a pair of binoculars searching for dolphins, porpoise, whales and fishing vessels.
The rocking and rolling of the boat kept me from doing anything much on the first day. Still, we had a sighting of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, the first time I had seen these amazing animals at sea, and I felt much better watching their joyous leaps.
My seasickness improved on the second day and I took up my onboard duties standing watches and collecting environmental data. I was elated to be gaining the field experience that I had always dreamt about and knew was critical for achieving marine conservation in my country.
Our fishing boat investigated the catches, bycatches and fishing practices of vessels spotted by our companion ship. Credit: WCS Bangladesh.
While the larger survey vessel follows a pre-designed transect line and focuses on searching for marine megafauna and fishing vessels, the team on the smaller fishing boat investigated the catches, bycatches and fishing practices of vessels spotted by the larger vessel. Working on the small boat, I saw beautiful sharks and rays being pulled out of the sea entangled in gillnets and caught on long-lines with thousands of hooks.
I also saw huge amounts of plastic being pulled up in these same gears. The presence of plastic reminded us that our precious marine environment is being polluted and our fisheries are being over exploited, putting vital resources including threatened marine megafauna at risk.
These observations made me even more determined to protect the rich marine resources of my country. Meanwhile, the simplicity of the lifestyle of fishermen on their floating homes facing the roughness of the sea made me respect their livelihoods even more.
For this expedition, we are completing a comprehensive survey of marine megafauna, including dolphins, porpoises, whales, sharks, rays and marine turtles. Credit: WCS Bangladesh.
After eight days at sea I had to return to our office in Dhaka to fulfill the less exciting duties of my new job as WCS Bangladesh MPA Program Manager. My time on the water seemed like a lifetime of learning collapsed into this short time when our survey team became a family, supporting each other and working together to accomplish our shared goal of protecting marine biodiversity in Bangladesh.
I have always wanted to make a tangible contribution to marine conservation and this survey is how it all begins. WCS has given me this opportunity for which I am deeply grateful, blessed and moved.
——————————————————— Manzura Khanis the WCS Bangladesh Marine Protected Area Program Manager and a research participant in the survey.
Scraping sand grains and pebbles for nutrients, it has wandered the river bed for ten months. After hiding from predators under submerged rocks it is time to leave the safety of the river behind.
Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) collection site. PHOTO BY R. ISAÍ MADRIZ
Among the rarest species of insects in the world, Araucoderus gloriosus belongs to one of four primitive crane fly species found in South America. Is its rarity a result of what is happening?
Its instincts drive it in search of entangled root mats of marginal vegetation. For that, it must cross a hazardous field of exposed cobblestone. Its body is being pulled against the moist rocks. The unfamiliar sensation of gravity is sobering.
Devoid of legs, it pulls its heavy body forward with its mandibles.
Dawn enshrouds the river bank with a dense mantle of fog. There, not too far from the river’s edge, partially compressed between two fist-sized rocks, the putrid pupal remains of another of its kind is being consumed by scuttle fly larvae; an ominous sign of what lies ahead.
The chaotic arrangement of the rocks and the impoverished diatom film covering them, laid evidence of a violent recent flood, a humbling reminder of the power of the elements.
If it is to survive, the larva must hurry. The morning sun’s rays will soon dissipate the fog, exposing the migrating larva to predators.
It has begun. Hungry ground-dwelling birds scout the surface, while other small passerine birds circle above looking for an easy meal. Deadly parasitic wasps are in search of prey; their young will consume their host from the inside out.
The fourthmolt allowed the eyeless larva to develop light-metering primitive eyes, an elemental predatory avoidance tool.
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) larval head capsule. Photo by R. Isaí Madriz
Halfway from the marginal vegetation, it begins to burrow into the moist sand.
As I observe sitting motionless on top of a large rock I ask myself: Was the drastic behavior change triggered by the continuous sensation of morning rays? Is the larva aware of the constant danger from predators? Perhaps it senses imminent risk of desiccation.
As the day passes by I wait patiently. The night belongs to bizarre creatures. Found only in Patagonia, stoneflies over two inches in length are taking over the night. Emerging in mass, they invade the land in search of a safe place to complete their transformation to adulthood.
At last, the larva reached the entangled root mats of the marginal vegetation. It searches for a secure moist area to begin its transformation. Pupation is the most vulnerable stage in its life cycle.
Its larval skin has been shed. The thin and translucent pupal skin presents a unique view to its internal organs. Highly sensitive long hairs arranged in crucial areas of its body alert of changes in its surroundings.
Safe in the moist microhabitat, its clear skin darkens with the passing days. Within, its organs reorganize for the last time.
A few days pass by and the pupa’s skin is hardened, a promising indication of a successful metamorphosis
Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) pupa habitus ventral (left) and lateral (right)view. Illustration by R. Isaí Madriz
High above, recent snowfall failed to remain on the mountaintop. An unexpected flood engulfs the river bank, dislodging the pupa from its shelter. Trapped in the increasing current, the river gradient steepens, as whitewater fills the increasingly narrowing channel.
Unable to move its developing appendages, the pupa relies on buoyancy for survival. It must keep the two respiratory organs on its head above the water or it will drown.
Several hundred yards downstream, in a small foamy pool in the splash zone of a 20ft waterfall, a newly emerged adult male hangs on to the vertical side of a small rock, its discarded pupal skin floats among plant debris. With luck he will spread his wings for the first time.
Nearby, holding on to the exposed roots in the undercut riverbank, a female completes her metamorphosis. At the same time, hanging from the marginal vegetation, camouflaged by their exquisite coloration, males wait for receptive females to take flight.
The male at the base of the waterfall flies away in search of a warmer, drier place away from the cold mist. As I wade through the river, following the male’s path, I feel the soothing sensation of the sun warming my skin. The male’s adult body is being illuminated by the sun for the first time. Does he feel the same calming sensation as I do?
Its dull flight pattern and slow speed diversify, as the morning rays stimulate a graceful aerial dance revealed for the first time before my eyes. I stand motionless in the middle of the river, in awe. The exquisite wing pattern is complemented by an iridescent hue reflecting the sun’s rays. This fly is indeed glorious.
Stacked image of the Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) adult hanging from a Magellan’s beech (Nothofagus betuloides) branch. Photo by R. Isaí MadrizR. ISAÍ MADRIZ collecting A. gloriosus larvae. PHOTO BY Gregory R. Curler
In a blink of an eye the magic dissipates. The male is tackled out of the air and onto the overhanging vegetation by a dragonfly several times his size. The predator perches on a broad leaf a few feet away from where I stand. I watch in shock, as it slowly consumes the primitive crane fly, discarding the legs and wings as it gradually devours the thorax. Several thoughts run through my head: How does the fly process pain? Does he? What thoughts would be passing through the fly’s brain? Does he have any?
In the upcoming days little more is revealed of this species’ secretive adult behavior. The population size is a fraction compared to what it was two years prior. With adults becoming increasingly harder to find, their short adult life span and the ever-changing weather make the task at hand troublesome.
With the season passing, the adult population vanishes. It is cold, but the mountaintops have yet to retain any snowfall. Weather fluctuations turn what should be snow into rain, preventing accumulation of snow and consequently scouring the riverbed through the intensifying glacial melts that feed the river. Can this species survive the ongoing climatic challenges, or will it embrace the imminent fate of the bleeding glaciers that it fully depends on?
* The story above is an accurate assemblage of observed field events from 2013–2018 complemented by a scientific investigation on the species depicted.