We are settling into one of our many nights in the forests of Umling, to the western part of Royal Manas National Park. The night is devoid of any human voices, and all we could hear is the river gushing below, and the wind blowing in the trees. There is only the light of the moon, penetrating through the canopy and we are cautioned not to light fire nor switch on torches. The rangers check their guns, put the safety lock on and put it under their pillow. It is 7 p.m., and we are done with dinner. We are at Kukulung, a place very close to the Indian border and infamous for militant activity and armed poachers. There have been infrequent past encounters between these intruders and the Bhutanese counterparts, and the tales of these encounters sends chill down the spine. There are dangers also from the elephants and gaurs (also known as the Indian Bison), both known to be notorious for attacking people. Here, they can be seen in big herds.
I am in Royal Manas National Park, studying tigers. Royal Manas National Park is the oldest protected area in Bhutan and was established in 1964. The national park is located in the southern foothills of the country and is known worldwide for its incredible biodiversity and scenic landscapes. It has seven species of wildcats in an area of 1054 square kilometers, one of the highest density of cat species in the world and I have always wanted to come here and work. I am currently a wildlife biology student at the University of Montana, and as a part of my thesis research, I am studying the genetic make-up of tigers in the Bhutan Himalaya landscape. I am using non-invasive survey techniques to collect poop samples for obtaining DNA which would provide information on genetic diversity and connectivity in tigers of Bhutan. Insights on ecology and spatial distribution are increasingly becoming available, but information on genetic make-up and diversity is highly lacking and thus, lack explicit consideration in tiger conservation strategies in the country.
I come to Royal Manas National Park because it has tigers, a lot of them compared to the rest of the country and the national park has enjoyed momentous success in tiger monitoring and conservation over the years. The park was applauded recently for an amazing feat: the tiger numbers have doubled over the last three years.
With a team consisting of two research assistants, myself, six armed rangers and three porters, we set off to collect tiger poop. With every poop we found, we celebrated immensely; there was joy on each of our faces. But we were always careful and alert. Few rangers would walk ahead, we would walk in the middle, and few rangers would be at the back. We had to be quiet and maintained a steady pace; some eyes looked up front, some sideways and there were few of us looking at the trails for poop, scrapes, and pugmarks. It was one of the most enriching and adrenaline filled days of my life.
We were always ready by 7 a.m. in the morning, and the day’s journey would take a walking of at least 7 hours. We would cross dense forests, grasslands and rivers, tread river beds and climb ridges. By noon, our porters would cook us delicious food. We would retire by 4 in the evening, cook dinner near a water source, have it there, put out the fire and go somewhere else to sleep. We would choose a vantage point to camp, under a tree canopy and close to a river. The weather seemed erratic and we prayed it never rains for we had no tents with us; it was February and it hardly ever rained in February. The camping sites were always shifted, we never camped at the same place. We would be sleeping scattered across the forest floor and never together. It was the usual drill, and quietly, we would slip into our sleeping bags by dusk. We would watch the moon and the stars and fall asleep. This would be our routine for all the days we were in the forest.
I feel extremely lucky to be getting a sizable number of tiger poop in Umling, and the fieldwork went much smoother than I anticipated. Next, I will be visiting Manas Range on the eastern side of the park. The fieldwork will be equally daunting. I will also be visiting other tiger hotspots across the country to collect more samples. Many of whom I had consulted with had not observed much tiger poop deposits in the forests, and I was very nervous. I visited monasteries and lit butter lamps for blessings, and it is typical of what many Bhutanese like to do when they need something urgent. I was also nervous because of the history of some of these places I was visiting. But I was determined to take it as a challenge, and, I didn’t have a choice.
Fieldwork and patrolling along the borders are always this nerve wrecking. Park rangers are on average 15 days away in a month in the jungles patrolling, camera trapping, and carrying out fieldwork for other research purposes. Many decades have passed this way, and they handle it well; their families have learned not to miss them more. The rangers put their soul into their work and their love for nature is genuine. Their sweat and perseverance are returning results: tigers are doubling in numbers and illegal logging is subsiding. They are very happy about these positive developments, and I could it feel from their smiles as they spoke about it. However, they train every now and then and are always alert and fit; complacency has no room in these jungles.
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.