Saturday, May 17, 2008

African Lion

African LionThe top cat in Africa, African Lion is the undisputed king of the plains of Africa. Having evolved approximately a million years ago on the African continent, the big cat is found today in many different parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Slightly larger than the Asian lion, the African Lion has captivated human imagination more than any other animal and has for centuries been an emblem of strength, courage and nobility in most cultures of the world.

A massively powerful animal, the African Lion weighs in the range of four hundred and fifty to five hundred and fifty pounds for healthy adult males whereas females are usually in the range of three hundred to three hundred and fifty pounds. Length is between six to eight feet for males and five to six feet for females, excluding a near three foot tail. Significantly bigger individuals have been recorded though. The largest wild lion ever weighed was close to seven hundred pounds. In captivity a specimen of well over eight hundred pound is documented. Height at shoulders is close to four feet for males and three and a half feet for females.

The lion's coat is tawny in coloration and plain. Fur is short and somewhat coarse. Males are distinguished by their big mane that covers head, neck and part of belly and back. The mane is pale in coloration initially and goes through shades to golden to black as the lion ages. A black colored full mane signifies a mature lion with good breeding potential and is often preferred by lionesses for a partner. In some parts of Africa, including Senegal and notably Tsavo, Kenya, maneless male lions are recorded, possibly in adaptation for the thorny habitat of that regions. Overall the built is muscular for both sexes. Lionesses are more athletic since it allows them to excel in hunting, their primary role in the pride. Male lions are bulkier since the added weight and strength allows them to fight off intruders and defend the pride's territory. Weapons include sharp claws and near three inch canines. Jaws are powerful and skull is bigger than any other cat species. Eyes are set in front as in case of most land predators rather than on sides as in case of prey. The field of vision that is so essential for prey animals to look out for hunters comes with widely set eyes. This visual field is compromised in favor of better depth perception and binocular vision in lions that comes with relatively narrowly placed eyes, that aid them in judging distance from prey for pouncing upon it. Tail has a tuft of hair that covers the spine at the tip of tail. Belly skin is loose and shields the internal organs from vicious kicks of hunted ungulates during a kill.

Social cats, African Lions are apex and keystone predators. They live and hunt together, increasing the chances of success and survival for themselves and their cubs during harsh seasons. Lionesses do the bulk of hunting by laying a sort of organized trap for the hunted. Each lioness performs a specific role in this form of group hunting. Usually the weak and old are chosen and isolated from the herds. Then one or two lionesses expose themselves by breaking cover and charging at prey. The panicked animals take off and usually end up in jaws of a waiting lioness in their flight. A suffocating hold is placed by biting at the neck of smaller prey or covering the mouth and nose of larger prey. In contrast with previous beliefs, it is now estimated that male lions take part in up to fifty to sixty percent of all hunts, being of particular use in taking down larger prey like buffalo. Other animals taken are of a vast variety depending upon the type and abundance of prey animals in a particular territory. These include eland, gemsbok, hartebeest, impala, kudu, warthog, wildebeest and zebra. At times even giraffes and the young of rhinos, hippos and elephants are killed. Opportunistic predators, lions will hunt and eat anything in times of need including carrion. Some lions in Botswana have been filmed killing elephants after a period of severe drought. Calves were regularly taken and occasionally so were adults under cover of darkness.

African Lions are at the top of food chain in African Savannah and do not refrain from wiping out competition if opportunity presents. Conflict with spotted hyenas are common who are often able to intimidate lionesses and cubs owing to their greater numbers, but suffer heavily when they come in contact with males. Adult male lions have been witnessed displaying rather savage behavior towards hyenas on occasions, actively chasing and killing off adult and the young of hyenas. At times lions have been recorded scavenging off hyena kills. Interspecies conflict with other big cats also occurs and African Lions often kill leopards and cheetahs and their young, possibly to ward off competition.

African Lion distributionA number of subspecies of lions are recognized, based upon their area of distribution in Africa.

Panthera Leo Azandica (North East Congo lion) - North-eastern Congo

Panthera Leo Bleyenberghi (Southwest African or Katanga lion) - South-western Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Katanga (Zaire), Zambia and Zimbabwe

Panthera Leo Krugeri (Southeast African or Transvaal lion) - Transvaal region of South eastern Africa, including Kruger National Park

Panthera Leo Nubica (East African or Massai lion) - East Africa from Ethiopia and Kenya to Tanzania and Mozambique

Panthera Leo Senegalensis (West African lion) - Western Africa from Senegal to Nigeria

Territorial cats, African Lions live in pride areas of up to tens of square miles depending upon the concentration of lions and prey in a particular region. Males regularly patrol the territory, marking it with scent from their paws and urine. At dusk and dawn they roar to establish their presence and warn off intruders. The roar is loudest among cats and can be heard up to a distance of five miles. A pride consists of one to four males and up to a dozen or more of females and young cubs. Females are generally related to each other and usually stay in a pride for the duration of their life whereas young males are kicked off by adults when they are between two to three years old. These young males then pursue a nomadic lifestyle, forming coalitions with other solitary males and hunting and surviving on their own. When they are four to five years old they are capable of taking over a pride of their own. Next they move into the domain of resident males of an established pride and attempt to take over the territory and lionesses. This often results in a bloody and at times fatal battle. If the resident males lose out, they slink away and the nomads are quick to kill any cubs sired by previous males. This brings the females into estrus. The new males also kill or drive away any young males. The take over is often brutal and sometimes takes months. After the lionesses have finally settled down, the new males have only a period of two to three years on average to produce cubs of their own that can successfully reach adulthood and propagate their genetic line before they are ousted as well. Females come into estrus year round and produce a litter of two to three cubs after a pregnancy lasting between three to four months. The young learn hunting by one year and are fully independent by two years of age. Maturity is reached by four years in females and five years in case of males. Lifespan is between twelve to fifteen years in the wild and around twenty five years in captivity.

African Lioness and cubOnce numbering in hundreds of thousands, African Lions have dwindled over the past decades to between twenty to thirty thousand animals, owing to reasons not well understood. Conflicts with humans, loss of prey and habitat are supposedly the possible causes. Diseases like Canine Distemper Virus and other outbreaks like stable fly attacks have wiped out hundreds of lions in the past and are a serious threat today, particularly with fragmentation of lion habitats and increasing risk of loss of genetic variability through inbreeding. Though hundreds of African Lions exist in captivity worldwide they are under threat in the wild, with their current classification being Vulnerable. The King of Beasts is the spirit of Africa and the color of Africa and deserves our respect and protection for it to reign as the Monarch of African wilderness for generations to come.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Asiatic Lion

Asiatic LionAmongst the most regal animals on earth, the Asiatic Lion or Asian Lion is one of the two subspecies of lions extant. Slightly smaller than its African cousin, the Asiatic Lion is under dire threat as a subspecies and is struggling for survival. Its origin as a subspecies is relatively recent considering evolutionary terms, occurring around one hundred thousand years ago. Panthera Leo Persica, the great cat once roamed over a range extending from Greece to South Asia, but relentless human persecution has meant it is now restricted to a single reserve in the west Indian state of Gujarat, by name of Gir Forest.

Apart from size, the other features that distinguish the Asian Lion from African Lion include a bushier coat, smaller mane that exposes their ears, a central skin fold that runs across the belly and longer tufts of hair at elbows and tip of tail. Weight is in the range of four to five hundred pounds for males and two hundred and fifty to three hundred and fifty pounds for females. Body length is between six to seven feet excluding a three foot tail, with females being smaller, though larger individuals of around nine feet have been recorded.

Asiatic Lions live in dry deciduous forests and scrub lands of the isolated Gir Forest of slightly over one thousand square kilometers. Between three hundred to three hundred and fifty individual cats exist in this sanctuary in an overcrowded environment, often straying outside park boundaries and coming into conflict with locals. Prey includes Spotted Deer, Sambhar, Goat, Nilgai, Buffaloes and even some smaller animals. Cattle are often attacked and killed and so are camels, bringing them under ire of locals. Attacks on humans are more frequent these days owing to the shrinking habitat and growing numbers of lions, pushing them more often into bordering human territories. Social animals, Asian Lions live in smaller pride units than their African counterparts. A couple of females live with one to two males who are somewhat solitary and come together when the family dines. The lesser numbers in prides in these lions are often attributed to the smaller prey animals that are available to these hunters, making it difficult for the social cats to share in large numbers. Hunting is cooperative and chiefly done by females, with males joining at times to bring down bigger prey like buffalo.

Asiatic Lion distributionAlso known as Persian Lions (owing to their period of existence in Persia) and Indian Lions, these majestic big cats have only one sanctuary on the planet, the Gir Protected Area of Indian Gujarat. Millions of dollars have been spent in creating a separate reserve in Kuno-Palpur National Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh but the State Government of Gujarat refuses to lend a few of its lions to populate the new sanctuary which is now believed to be ready to receive its first batch of the great cats. It is widely believed that the Gujarat Government wants to keep its monopoly on the tourist trade by keeping its troubled lions jammed in the only place in the world where they can be sighted in the wild, thus bringing the entire subspecies into risk through inbreeding. Furthermore, a single epidemic or environmental catastrophe can wipe out the entire wild population of the last lions of Asia.

Asiatic lions begin to mate with the coming of winter in October and November. Pregnancy lasts near three and a half months (one hundred and three days) following which a litter of three to four cubs is born. The young are introduced to a solid diet at three months and begin hunting at nine months of age. They gain independence when they are an year old. Maturity is reached between three to four years of age. A female can successfully reproduce once every two years. Lifespan is up to seventeen years in the wild and twenty four years in captivity.

Asiatic LionessNearly a century ago rampant hunting had led to the disappearance of lions from everywhere except the Gir Forest where only a handful remained. At that time, the then local ruler of Junagadh, perhaps under advice from the then Viceroy of India, placed a ban on hunting of lions. The ban has continued since then and the lion population has increased over the years. However, the threats they face today are plentiful. Chief among them is the fact that they have limited genetic variability since they have only originated from a few dozen ancestors. This makes them particularly vulnerable to disease. Another problem are the local people who are cattle owners and are having an adverse impact on wild prey population through overgrazing of their animals. Plus there are thousands of wells in the forest dug by locals into which the lions frequently fall and die. Only recently has the government started to raise their boundary walls through collaboration with NGOs. Many farmers have erected illegal electrical fences to protect their fields from herbivores. A number of lions have thus died as a result of accidental electrocution from these high voltage barricades. Recently it was reported that a tribe of poachers consisting of hundreds of people has camped next to the lion sanctuary. The same individuals are reported to be responsible for the killing of tigers that has resulted in the plummeting of Bengal Tiger population in India. Officials are taking action and forest guards are on the vigil but lions continue to be shot and poisoned regularly, resulting in the loss of dozens of these extremely rare animals annually. To add to the misery of the big cats, roads and even railway tracks have been laid across the park, meaning that the already inbreeding lions are forced to live in even smaller fragmented pockets.

The rapid expansion of India, according to many, has led to the weakening of authority of the central Government over its provinces. Both the tiger and the vanishing lions of India are suffering as a result. Unless a less selfish approach is adapted by the Gujarat state and separate reserves are populated by the Asiatic Lions, the fate of these spectacular cats hangs in the balance, their current classification being Critically Endangered.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Asiatic Cheetah

Asiatic CheetahsAsiatic Cheetah or Asian Cheetah is one of the rarest cat species on the planet with a mere fifty to sixty individuals remaining in the wild. Once found in thousands from Arabian peninsula to India, it is now seen only in fragmented locations in central Iran. Also called Indian Cheetah it is now extinct in India. The name Cheetah is in fact a derivation from the Sanskrit (ancient language of India) word Chitraka, meaning 'the spotted one'.

The fastest land mammal, Asiatic Cheetah, like other subspecies of this amazing big cat, is built for speed. A long and sleek body is balanced on slim, athletic legs with semi-retractable claws that enable the cat to maintain grip on ground in high speed pursuits. Weighing in the range of eighty to one hundred and fifty pounds, it is between four to five feet in length with a near two and a half feet tail that acts as a rudder to stabilize the Cheetah as it makes quick turns in hunts. Height is about two and a half feet. Fur color is tawny and hair are short and coarse. Black spots mark the length of the body. Head is small and eyes are high set. Dark tear like markings that run from the inside corners of eyes, across the side of nose to mouth are thought to protect the Cheetah's eyes from direct impact of sun's rays as it chases its prey in bright daylight.

Residing in the barren lands of Iran, Cheetah is a traditionally a daytime hunter. In Africa this is an adaptation to avoid conflict with other bigger predators like lions, hyenas and leopards that are active at night. Little is known about the behavior and habits of the Asian Cheetah, though it is known to prey upon gebeer and goitered gazelle, wild goat and urial sheep. Cheetahs have strong jaws and kill by the throat hold that suffocates the prey animal. It is estimated that if they come within two hundred yards of the prey by taking cover from bush and grass, avoiding notice, then they have a reasonable chance of success in making the kill. Unlike other big cats, Cheetahs can be tamed and were used for centuries by maharajahs in India to bring down gazelle, earning the title of 'hunting leopard'.

Acinonyx Jubatus Venaticus, the Asiatic Cheetah is currently recorded in desert and semi-arid shrubland in scattered regions in Iran. Some unconfirmed sightings have been made in the past in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, however there is no evidence to back them up. Cheetahs are to an extent migratory cats and often move around in search for prey. This is particularly true in case of females who don't hold as strongly to a territory as males.

Not much is known about the reproductive profile of Asiatic Cheetah. Mid winter is believed to be the peak breeding season for the cats even though they have been documented to mate year round. Litter size is reported to be between one to four cubs with two being the average. Independence is probably reached at eighteen months. Lifespan is up to twelve to fourteen years.

Cheetahs in general and Asian Cheetahs in particular are at the lowest point in their evolutionary history. A basic problem is their lack of genetic variability since they all seem to have evolved from a limited number of ancestors at one point in time several thousand years ago. This leads to a high mortality rate in cubs. The same problem is likely to have significant short and long term consequences for the Asiatic Cheetah which is under the significant threat of inbreeding. Desertification of their habitat, loss of prey, poaching and loss of habitat to agriculture and mining projects, are the main threats to this marvelous cat. There are conservation projects going on though. Authorities in Iran are reportedly taking interest in conservation of the big cat and collaborating with organizations like Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund to study and protect the feline. This enabled the successful collaring of the first Asiatic Cheetah last year, allowing the first opportunity to study the threatened cat in the wild that is currently classified as Critically Endangered.

Amur Leopard

Amur LeopardAmongst the rarest animals in the world, Amur Leopard is the reclusive big cat of Russian Far East. Known also as the Siberian Leopard, Far East Leopard, Korean Leopard and Manchurian Leopard, its territory overlaps with that of Siberian Tiger, though even as the tiger is flourishing, the beautiful leopard is threatened with near extinction.

Panthera Pardus Orientalis or Panthera Pardus Amurensis, the Amur Leopard weighs in the range of eighty to one hundred and sixty pounds for males and between sixty to one hundred and twenty pounds for females. Body length is in the range of five to seven feet for males and four to five feet for females. The big cat is distinguishable from other leopard subspecies by virtue of its stunning coat which takes a brighter glow in summer months and turns relatively pale in winter, when it also increases in length from one inch to three inches to provide protection against the harsh cold. The relatively long legs are also believed to assist the leopard in treading through snow in winter. Rosettes are larger with thicker borders and greater spacing in this subspecies.

Solitary and nocturnal felines, the Siberian Leopards live in forested habitats of Sikhote-Alin mountains of southern Russia. Skilled predators, they avoids direct competition with the Amur Tiger whilst hunting. They prey mainly on wild boar, sika, musk and roe deer, badgers, rodents and hares. Reputed to be good swimmer and climbers, they are capable of jumping twenty feet horizontally and ten feet vertically.

The leopard is seen mainly in Southeastern Russia where twenty five to thirty four individuals are believed to exist. Less than ten of the reclusive cats are thought to reside in the Chinese Northeast. Perhaps a few animals exist in North Korea but there is no way of confirming that for the time being. Loss of habitat and prey in China and Korean peninsula means the outlook is bleak for the leopard except for some scattered areas of Far East-Primorskii region of Russia.

Breeding season for the Amur Leopard is in spring and early summer. Pregnancy lasts for three to three and a half months following which one to six cubs are born that open their eyes at around ten days of age. They are weaned off at three months and gain independence at one and a half to two years. Sexual maturity is reached at nearly three years of age. Lifespan in captivity is known to be up to twenty three years.

Amur Leopards are facing a variety of threats today. Their numbers in the wild are too low to sustain sufficient genetic variability. Captive leopards worldwide suffer from pollution of their gene pool with as few as twelve animals reported to be purebred in captive programs globally. In nature they suffer from inbreeding, loss of habitat to logging and forest fires, poaching, hunting and conflict with humans. Less than forty animals exist today in which only half a dozen or so are females. Fortunately some conservation programs are underway that are beginning to collar and study the leopards, undertake regular patrols to deter poachers and compensate locals against any loss of their livestock and bred animals at the hands of leopards. A lot of financial and logistic input is still required before the beautiful Amur Leopard can rise from its current conservation status of Critically Endangered.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

South China Tiger

South China TigerThe rarest tiger in existence, South China Tiger or South Chinese Tiger is one of the ten most endangered animals in the world. Threatened with imminent extinction, this tiger has dwindled in number from thousands to tens in a space of few decades. Considered the stem tiger or the original tiger from which all other tigers of today have originated, Panthera Tigris Amoyensis, also known as Amoy Tiger or Xiamen Tiger, has not been seen in the wild for past twenty five years.

One of the smaller tiger subspecies, the South China Tiger weighs around three hundred and thirty pounds in case of males and two hundred and forty pounds for females. Average length is eight feet for males and seven and a half feet in case of females. Color is reddish orange and underparts are white. The dark stripes are short and spaced relatively broadly in comparison to other tigers. Tail appears to end rather abruptly than taper off as in case of other tiger subspecies.

In the past when South China Tigers were studied in the wild, they were known to inhabit moist forests in rocky terrains. They used to hunt a variety of prey species though predominant prey were probably ungulates. Livestock were also reportedly taken at times and human beings attacked by the big cats. They were nocturnal and perhaps solitary cats. Their range was dense jungles of south-central China in an area bordering different provinces.

South China Tiger distributionThough various fragmented reserves exist in the past range of South China Tiger no tiger has been documented for decades in these parts. There are reports of paw prints, hearing of roars and rare sightings but no solid proof exists that tigers still inhabit the woods of a country that once was home to four different subspecies of tigers. Experts believe that at the most there could be twenty to thirty of the Amoy Tigers in the wild but fear these too are on the brink of extinction owing to severe inbreeding.

Gestational period for South Chinese Tigers is three and a half months following which a litter of one to five cubs is born in the wild. The young begin to accompany the mother on hunts at two months of age and learn hunting at six months. They gain independence between one and one and a half years of age.

South China TigerThe fate of South China Tiger was sealed nearly half a century ago when in the late fifties Mao Zedong declared them as pests and ordered their extermination. When the Chinese Government realized its mistake a couple of decades later it was already too late. No tiger was ever seen in the wild again. The ones in captivity suffer from inbreeding as do any tigers that still might possibly exist in the wild. Poaching, loss of prey and habitat have taken a heavy toll on the already dwindling numbers of this great cat. Authorities in China are taking some positive measures now and re-wilding projects are being planned with prospects of a few of these tigers to be released and bred in the wild in South Africa. The offsprings of these cats could then be reintroduced in China with tougher laws and better protection for the tigers. The current classification for the oldest tiger subspecie, the South China Tiger, is Extinct in the Wild!

Sumatran Tiger

Sumatran TigerThe smallest subspecies of tiger, Sumatran Tiger has resided for millennia on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Its complete isolation and relative stability for thousands of years has enabled it to develop a unique genetic print, that may one day enable it to develop into a unique specie altogether. This significant finding has raised international calls for the prioritization of protection and conservation efforts for Sumatran Tigers above all other tiger subspecies.

Panthera Tigris Sumatrae, the Sumatran Tiger weighs in the range of two hundred and fifty to three hundred pounds for males and one hundred and sixty to two hundred pounds for adult females. Length is about seven and a half feet for males and six and a half feet for females. Body color is darker than other tiger variants and stripes are narrower. Face and neck is characterized by marked growth of hair, giving the appearance of a mane. Paws have webbing between toes that enables the big cat to swim at quite a rapid pace.

An inhabitant of dense lowland and mountain forests, swamps and peat moss forests, the Sumatran Tiger is a solitary and nocturnal feline that takes a variety of prey animals for food. These include wild boar, tapir and deer typically but also fowl and fish at times. Even orangutans are hunted when they come down from trees. Other animals included in the cat's diet are porcupines, crocodiles, snakes and young rhinos. The tiger has been seen forcing some of its prey to take to water in a chase, where it swims over and kills them.

Early in the twentieth century, tigers occupied nearly the entire island of Sumatra. They are now only found in some scattered and segregated reserves. Many tigers live outside the protected areas and are shot by poachers or come into conflict with locals. They are among the many species on the once serene island of Sumatra that are losing the battle of survival to human encroachment.

Mating season for Sumatran Tigers is in the times of winter and spring though they have been known to mate year round. Pregnancy lasts three and a half months following which a litter of up to six cubs is born, with two to three being the norm. The young begin to venture outside their den at two weeks of age and start hunting at around six months. Independence is gained at two years of age. Lifespan is known to be fifteen years in the wild and twenty years in captive programs.

Sumatran Tiger distributionThere are an estimated four to five hundred Sumatran Tigers remaining in the wild. Loss of habitat owing to logging and agriculture is ongoing and putting further stress at the ecosystem that supports the tiger. Many continue to be killed by poachers with their parts appearing even in North America apart from the traditional markets of Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and South Korea. The magnificent cat is currently on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with the classification being Critically Endangered. There is some hope though of the preservation of Sumatran Tiger, derived from its healthy numbers in captivity and from signing of a recent cooperative program for saving the big cat between Indonesian wildlife authorities and Australia Zoo, whose former patron Steve Irwin had a great passion of conserving the beautiful Sumatran Tiger.

Malayan Tiger

Malayan TigerMalayan Tiger of the Malay Peninsula was only recently discovered as a separate subspecies. Previously considered as part of the Indochinese Tiger, it was in 2004 after an year of extensive DNA study that it was declared as the sixth extant subspecies of tiger. Named Panthera Tigris Jacksoni after Peter Jackson, the former head of cat specialist group of IUCN who spent forty years in tiger conservation efforts, it is now alternatively called Panthera Tigris Malayensis by some after Malaysian protests that the name should reflect the area of the big cat's origin.

Similar in physical appearance to the Indochinese Tiger, the Malayan Tiger is closer to the Sumatran Tiger in size. Males weight around two hundred and sixty pounds and females are on average two hundred and twenty pounds in weight. Average body length is seven and a half and six and a half feet respectively for males and females. Coat is dark red to orange in coloration, marked by thin black stripes. Belly, cheek and area around eyes is white. Whiskers are somewhat long and so is the tail. Overall body is muscular.

Not much is understood about this big cat except that it resides mainly in tropical forests and grasslands of Malaysia and Thailand. It is known to prey on barking deer, sambar and wild boar as well as sun bear in certain parts of its range. The cat is thinly distributed in their habitat owing to low prey density. Little is known about its behavior patterns and reproductive profile.

Malayan Tiger distributionThere are between five hundred to one thousand Malayan Tigers left in the wild. Threats include habitat fragmentation and shrinkage, poaching, conflicts with humans and decline of prey species. Even as Malaysia enforces a rigid control on poaching that has cut down the loss of tigers to an extent, many of the Malayan Tigers live outside the designated forest reserves, often bringing them into conflict with farmers. Malaysia however has a very successful captive breeding program, raising some home for this beautiful feline which is currently classified as Critically Endangered.

Indochinese Tiger

Indochinese TigersAlso known as Corbett's Tiger in honor of Colonel James Corbett, the Indochinese Tiger is a denizen of forests of Southeast Asia. It is second to Bengal Tiger in size and numbers in the wild. Average weight is around four hundred pounds for males and two hundred and fifty for females though larger individuals of up to five hundred and fifty and three hundred pounds respectively have been recorded in either gender. Body length is nearly eight feet for females and nine feet for males, though as with weight, variations in length are often recorded.

Panthera Tigris Corbetti, the Indochinese Tiger is slightly darker in color than the average Bengal Tiger, having an ocher coloration with narrow stripes that often break up into a row of spots, and are less prominent on front legs. Underparts and inside of legs, chin and cheeks are white. Whiskers, treasured by Chinese pharmacies, are more prominent in males.

A resident of dense forests and hilly terrains, the Indochinese Tiger is a solitary and nocturnal feline. Not much is known about this big cat owing to the remoteness of its habitat and the unstable political climate across most of its range that has prevented researchers to gain access to its terrain to study it until recently. It is believed to be quite strong and capable of taking even baby elephants as prey animals. Usually they hunt antelope, wild boar and buffalo though they have been known to supplement their diet with birds, fish, monkeys and reptiles. At times the Corbett's tiger has been documented to kill bears, leopards and even other tigers.

Indochinese Tiger is seen in the mountainous border regions of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The shaded red area show their current range that has shrunk drastically over the past century and the tiger is now recorded in scattered parts across these countries, segregated by human population and thus suffering from inbreeding with its adverse genetic short and long term consequences.

The tigers communicate by vocalizations and calling in the mating season. They stay together during the courtship after which the male moves on. Female gives birth to a litter of two to three cubs after a pregnancy lasting one hundred and three days on average. The cubs gain maturity by two years of age. Lifespan on average is fifteen years.

There are only around one thousand Indochinese Tigers left in the wild, with estimates putting their current number somewhere between seven hundred and twelve hundred. They suffer heavily at the hands of poachers and the unstable political and economic situation in their native lands. Tiger parts are in high demand in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam where the bones are ground into powder and skin, tail, whiskers and other parts are put into various uses for the traditional medicine makers. There is no scientific evidence of any benefit of using tiger, rhino or other animal parts as aphrodisiacs or curative medicines for ailments, but the unfortunate animals continue to suffer. The poor locals see no harm in getting rid of potentially harmful tigers and selling them to illegal trading rings for good money. Governments in that part of the world are focusing on logging and developmental projects that continue to shrink forests and bring the tiger ever closer to the edge of extinction. If the Indochinese Tiger is to survive in the wild, the people and authorities of Southeast Asia have to see it as an asset that can benefit their ecotourism industry enormously. At the moment the beautiful cat is still classified as Endangered.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bengal Tiger

Bengal TigerBengal Tiger is the most numerous subspecies of tigers today. Second only to the Siberian Tiger in size, the Bengal Tiger, Panthera Tigris Tigris is a close second when it comes to the largest wild cat in existence. In fact many northern Bengal Tigers, in particular the Nepalese Tigers are thought to rival the Amur Tiger in size, with males weighing around five hundred and females three hundred pounds on average. Larger individuals have been witnessed though and the heaviest Bengal Tiger on record weighed around eight hundred and fifty pounds. Females of around four hundred pounds have been recorded as well. Average body length for males and females is ten and nine feet respectively though the famous Bachelor of Powalgarh was said to be 3.23 metres long over pegs. Shoulder height is usually in the range of three to three and a half feet.

Renowned worldwide for its stunning beauty and grace, the Bengal Tiger’s coat is a perfect camouflage tool as much as it is an object of splendor. Orange fur is marked by black stripes that disperse the tiger’s outline as it moves across the jungle. The pattern of individual stripes is as unique as fingerprints and aids in identification of individual tigers. Skull is large, particularly in the case of some adult males where the skull comes close to that of a lion. Ears are dark on the rear aspect and as in so many cats have a central white spot, thought variously to warn off intruders or guide the cubs with their early imperfect eyesight to follow the mother around.

Solitary cats, Bengal Tigers are territorial animals. They hunt at dusk and dawn and regularly mark their territory by scent to keep out other tigers from their hunting and breeding grounds. In some national parks where they are protected, tigers have been recorded to be active in daytime as well. Generally tigers prefer to stay in shade during daylight hours, particularly in the scorching summers of South Asia. Territories are smaller than those of Siberian Tigers owing to shrinking habitat of the tigers in India. Males roam over an area of twenty square miles and females hunt in a slightly smaller range of seventeen square miles. Often the territory of a single male overlaps those of several females, with whom he frequently mates. Tigers usually have more than one den in their range for them to choose as their haunt for a particular period of time.

Bengal Tigers are at the top of their ecosystem and play an active role in maintaining the delicate balance of India’s threatened natural fauna and flora. They prey upon a variety of animals including wild boar, sambar, barasingha, nilgai, gaur and water buffalo though the spotted dear, also known as chital, forms the bulk of their diet. At times smaller animals including hares, peacocks, langurs and monkeys are also consumed. Tigers are not above scavenging and often eat putrefied carcasses. Extremely strong, Bengal Tigers are known to attack and kill the largest prey animals in India including the Asiatic Elephant and Rhinoceros. They are estimated to have the strength of twelve adult men and can carry a fully grown cow over a ten foot fence. Aggressive animals, these great cats often kill adult crocodiles over conflict. In reality, nothing is safe from a wild tiger in the jungles of India if it makes up its mind to hunt it.

Bengal Tiger distribution

The most untamed of India’s tigers reside in the largest natural delta on earth – the Sunderban forest of Bengal where the sacred river Ganges opens into the Bay of Bengal. An estimated near three hundred and five hundred tigers reside on India and Bangladesh’s side of this vast mangrove wetland. Landlocked through ever-changing tides from the hunting maharajahs and colonial British of the past centuries, these wild tigers have never learned to respect man. These tigers are expert swimmers and amongst the most notorious big cats when it comes to man-eating. Their victims are ever so often the honey collectors and fishermen of Sunderban (literally meaning beautiful forest). Even though Core Areas and Buffer Zones have been designated to separate the predator from man, the extremely poor villagers go deep into tiger territory to search for honey and fish. The result is a number of deaths yearly that the locals have learnt to live with as the continual cycle of life and death in that part of the world. Still the conflict fares badly for the tiger which runs the risk of being poisoned and killed as in many other parts of the subcontinent where it is being victimized, by villagers for revenge, and poachers for profit. Despite its fearsome reputation the tiger is believed to be a large hearted gentleman that generally avoids human by most experts including the famed hunter turned conservationist Jim Corbett who understood more about the big cat more than half a century ago than most do today. Most human kills by tigers according to him were the result of surprise, provocation, old age, injury, loss of prey or coincidence. Once tigers learn that humans are relatively easy and defenseless prey, some take to man-eating.

Recorded in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal and parts of Tibet, the Bengal Tiger is essentially the pride of India and Bangladesh where it is given the status of national animal. Highest numbers are known to exist in scattered reserves in India where its numbers have shrunk from tens of thousands nearly a century ago to less than fifteen hundred today. Tigers survive in a variety of tropical habitats including marshlands, brush and grasslands.

Mating season for Bengal Tigers is between winter and spring. Females are receptive for three days to a week. Pregnancy lasts for around three months after which three cubs are born on average. The young are particularly vulnerable to adult male tigers in the vicinity who will frequently kill the cubs they haven’t fathered to bring the female into estrus and establish the perpetuity of their own genetic line. At eleven months of age, the cubs are able to hunt for themselves. They stay with their mother for up to two to three years of age after which they move off to fend for themselves and take up a range of their own. Lifespan in the wild is fifteen years, and in captivity seventeen years on average.

Bengal TigerThrough decades of hunting, poaching and neglect, India’s tigers were brought to the brink of extinction in the early 1970’s. At that time, the then Premier, Indira Gandhi, inaugurated Project Tiger to protect the few remaining Bengal Tigers. For some years, the project was a glowing success and numbers in the wild appeared to stabilize and even improve. However, these recording were made from unscientific methods and forest officials typically inflated the reported numbers to cover up their neglect and perhaps even wrongdoings with regards to saving the tigers. In the following years, emphasis shifted from the tiger to the ever expanding population and economy of India. Dams were constructed and agricultural land expanded, in turn diminishing the area of forests and the habitat of the big cat. Finally a truly scientific survey was launched some years ago and the recent results have shocked even the most pessimistic conservationists. Today India is reported to house as few as fourteen hundred tigers in its jungles. This has led to widespread international calls for protection of the Bengal Tiger but even now there seems to be a lacking of political will according to some observers to conserve this magnificent creature that was recently voted as the most favorite animal in the world. One of the leading international wildlife experts George Schaller went as far as to imply that India has yet to decide if the Royal Bengal Tiger is an asset to treasure. At the current rate, many experts fear that this beautiful cat will be extinct in the wild in the coming decade. The last lord of the jungle is currently classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

Siberian Tiger

Siberian TigerThe largest wild cat in the world, Siberian Tiger is also one of the most endangered. Also known as Amur Tiger, Altaic Tiger, Korean Tiger, Manchurian Tiger and North China Tiger on the basis of its geographical distribution, it is one of the most majestic and largest felines to have ever lived. Slightly taller than the average Bengal Tiger, the Amur Tiger stands nearly four feet tall. Weight is in the range of 450 to 600 pounds for males and 225 to 400 pounds for females, though significantly larger individuals in the range of 800 to 900 pounds have been recorded. Body length is between six to eight feet, excluding the meter long tail. Overall the great cat is known to grow up to thirteen feet long from tip of nose to tip of tail.

The physical makeup of the Siberian Tiger is an adaptation to its harsh habitat in the Russian Far East. The coat is thick and insulated by a layer of fat underneath on flanks and belly, in protection against the unforgiving Siberian winter. Fur grows longer and denser than the other tiger subspecies in winter months. Coat color is whiter in comparison to other tigers, possibly to aid in camouflage against the snow. Stripes are also less pronounced, particularly on limbs where they are absent on the outer surface of front legs. Coloration of skin and stripes is lighter, being golden and brown respectively. Paws are also padded with fur, to enable the big cat to tread comfortably on its snowy terrain.

Residing in the Conifer and Broadleaf forests east of the Amur River, the Siberian Tigers are solitary cats that enjoy a relatively undisturbed ecosystem devoid in large parts of human activity. Occupying huge territories of up to four thousand square miles, these Amur Tigers are often on the move, covering large distances in search of prey in their isolated wilderness. One Siberian Tiger was once recorded to cover over six hundred miles in the space of three weeks in search of food. The great cat hunts a variety of animals including moose, roe deer, sika deer, musk deer and goral, though red deer and wild boar form the bulk of its diet. Opportunistic predators, the tigers are known to take smaller prey like rabbits, hares, pikas and fish (usually salmon) at times. At times conflict occurs even with the Great Russian Brown Bear, though tiger predation upon bears in usually restricted to females, subadult and hibernating animals. On occasion the Asiatic Black Bear is hunted by the tiger. The cunning cat is known to imitate black bear sounds to attract and hunt them. Even resilient pack animals such as wolves have been nearly exterminated by the tigers. A stalk and ambush predator, the Amur Tiger despite its great power still only succeeds in ten to fifteen percent of hunting attempts. The cat prefers to creep up to ten to twenty five meters of the prey animal before rushing and pouncing upon it, moving at speeds of up to 80 km/hr in its charge. Smaller prey animals are killed by a bite on the nape of neck that breaks the vertebrae and severs the spinal cord. Larger game is brought down by a bite on front of the neck that crushes the windpipe and suffocates the prey. Needing around twenty pounds of meat daily to survive in the wild, the tiger can consume about sixty to hundred pounds in one setting. The kill is often cached, usually near a water body and the cat has been known to return to carcasses to complete its feed.

Siberian Tiger distribution

The Siberian Tiger inhabits the Boreal forests in Far Eastern Asia, residing largely in Russia but also reported in China and North Korea. Panthera Tigris Altaica, it is seen largely in the Amur-Ussuri region of Primorsky and Khabarovsky Krai. Its range has shrunk drastically in the past hundred years and is now a mere fraction of its past domain.

The tigers are known to mate at any time during the year. The receptive female advertises her presence by leaving urine and scratch markings on trees. She is in estrus typically for three to seven days during which the pair mates several times. Like all big cats, the courting individuals focus less on hunting during this time and are particularly hostile to any intruders. Up to six cubs are born after a pregnancy lasting between three to three and a half months, though three to four is the average litter size. Blind and helpless they are sheltered in a den by the ever watchful mother who seldom leaves them during the early weeks, going out only for hunting. The young open their eyes at two weeks and begin to venture outside at around three months. They are weaned off at around six months and begin to accompany their mother at her hunting trips at this age. Small prey is successfully taken down by the cubs at less than one year of age, and large prey at twice that age. They stay with their mother at up until three to five years of age after which they begin to venture and establish their territories and fend for themselves. Males generally move farther away from their realm, making them easier targets for poachers. As a result adult male tigers are outnumbered by females three to one on average. Lifespan is known to be up to twenty five years.

Amur Tigers were freely hunted in the early part of this century, bringing them to near extinction in most territories. In 1947 hunting was outlawed in the former Soviet Union. Still the tiger continued to suffer at the hands of poachers who made heavy profits by selling the body parts to Chinese traditional medicine makers, earning up to fifty thousand dollars with one tiger. The collapse of Soviet Union accompanied with the breakdown of law and order infrastructure had a particularly adverse impact on the tiger population whereby nearly sixty tigers were reputedly killed yearly by poachers in the few years following 1989. In 1992, The Siberian Tiger Project was founded. This marked the beginning of a turn around in the fate of tiger. In 1993, Chinese Government declared the use of tiger parts for medicinal purposes to be illegal. In the following years, vigilant monitoring and study resulted in the stabilization of tiger numbers in the wild. Regular patrols were undertaken to deter the poachers and individual tigers were studied to better understand the subspecies and reduce its mortality in its natural habitat. Another successful step was launching of Operation Amba in Russia that continues to protect the Siberian Tigers through collaboration of law enforcement agencies and interaction with local people. Its mission is to neutralize tiger traders and attack and eliminate poaching rings. It has been largely successful in seizing many poaching materials and saving a number of tiger cubs. As a result of these tireless efforts of forest rangers and scientists, today the population of Siberian Tigers in the wild is believed to be around five hundred individuals and this is merely the number in Russia. In fact the Siberian Tiger is the only tiger subspecies whose population is believed to be on the increase. The impressive recovery of the Siberian Tiger is often used as a model plan to save other species.

Siberian Tiger

Hundreds of Amur Tigers exist in captivity around the world. The captive bred tigers are thought to have even greater genetic diversity than their wild cousins. In general the captive breeding of Siberian Tigers has been very successful. One breeding centre in China plans to release 620 of its tigers in the wild soon.

The Siberian Tiger still needs our dedicated monitoring. Building of new roads and logging is having an adverse impact on the tiger numbers and the fragile ecosystem requires continuous surveillance to boost the number of tigers and ungulates in the woods of Siberia. The magnificent cat is still listed as Critically Endangered by International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Rusty Spotted Cat

Rusty Spotted CatThe smallest wild cat in the world, Rusty Spotted Cat is also one of the most playful. A resident of Indian Subcontinent, it is believed to be a miniature version of the Leopard Cat. Weighing between two to three pounds, it is around two feet in length including tail. Females of the species are particularly small.

Prionailurus Rubiginosus, the Rusty Spotted Cat has a grayish coat with rusty red colored spots all over its body, coalescing to form stripes on head. Fur is soft and short. Under surface is white and often spotted as well. Face is marked by dark and white stripes that run across the inner aspect of eyes. Eyes appear large in contrast to the small rounded head. Ears are short and oval in shape. Legs are tiny and tail is relatively thick, possibly aiding the cat in moving along trees.

An arboreal and nocturnal feline, the Rusty Spotted Cat is known to prey upon small animals including rodents, frogs, reptiles, insects and small birds. The reclusive felid spends most of the day resting in dense cover and comes out at night to hunt. An opportunistic predator, it is known to take domestic poultry, bringing itself in conflict with the locals at times. The cat is very friendly and fun loving though, often being adopted as a pet by some.

Rusty Spotted Cat distributionA resident of India and Sri Lanka, the Rusty Spotted Cat is divided into two subspecies on the basis of this geographical distribution. The Sri Lankan subspecies is brighter in coloration and lives at high altitudes in comparison to the Indian variant that prefers to stay in plains.

Prionailurus Rubiginosus Rubiginosus - India

Prionailurus Rubiginosus Phillipsi - Sri Lanka

A solitary feline, the Rusty Spotted Cat comes into estrus in spring. Usually one kitten is born after a pregnancy lasting nearly ten weeks. The babies lack the coloration of adults. Longevity and age of maturation is unknown owing to insufficient scientific research into the lifestyle of this elusive cat.

The rare Rusty Spotted Cat faces several risks in the wild that threaten it with extinction. Faced with loss of habitat and hunting pressures, the beautiful cat is also trapped and consumed as food in some parts of its range, making its current conservation status Vulnerable.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Pampas Cat

Pampas CatA wild cat of South America, Pampas Cat bears a close physical resemblance to the European Wild Cat. About the size of a large stocky house cat, the Pampas Cat, also known as Grass Cat, grows up to three feet in length including its one foot tail and stands a foot tall at the shoulders. Weight is around ten pounds.

With a broad face and pointed ears, Pampas Cat has quite diverse coloration in different parts of its range. Fur length varies as does the color, ranging from red to yellow and gray with a variety of spots and stripes on the body. Nose is pink and brownish bars run across face and upper forelegs. Melanistic individuals have been recorded. Ears are gray on the back and have a central white spot in the cats living in northern parts in contrast to the southern dwelling felines which have plain ears. A small mane runs across its back and this along with the somewhat bushy tail gets erect to make the cat look bigger when it feels threatened.

A predominantly nocturnal felid, Pampas Cat prefers moist jungles and open plains of Patagonia, residing at times at high altitudes. It preys upon small animals including rodents, birds including pigeons as well as domestic poultry in areas where human settlements are close by. Leopardus Pajeros, it is believed to be predominantly a terrestrial hunter.

A number of subspecies are recognized based upon regional differences in coloration and overall appearance across South America:

Leopardus Pajeros Pajeros - Argentina, Chile

Leopardus Pajeros Budini - Argentina

Leopardus Pajeros Crespoi - Chile

Leopardus Pajeros Colocolo - Chile

Leopardus Pajeros Braccata - Argentina, Brazil

Leopardus Pajeros Thomasi - Ecuador

Leopardus Pajeros Garleppi - Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru

Pampas Cats come into estrus halfway into the year, in the months of May, June and give birth to a small litter of two kittens on average after a pregnancy lasting nearly eighty days. Maturity is reached at around twenty one months. Longevity in captivity is known to be up to sixteen years, though the average lifespan is about half of this.

Heavily hunted in the 1970's for its fur, the Pampas Cat is now protected as a species and pelt trade is illegal, allowing the cat to reach the current status of Least Concern even as habitat and prey loss continue to take a toll on this beautiful feline.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Pallas Cat

Pallas CatNamed after Peter Pallas who first described it, Pallas Cat or Pallas's Cat is a Central Asian feline of astonishing beauty. About the size of a large domestic cat, it is two feet long with a tail that can grow up to a foot. Weight is around ten pounds on average. Resembling the Lynx in facial appearance, Pallas Cat is believed by some to be the oldest living species of cats, its evolution dating as far back as ten million years.

Fur is long, thick and grayish in color, often varying with season. Head is short and broad and face is flattened. Ears are small and widely set. Body appears to be heavy and supported on stocky limbs. Eyes are large and pupils circular unlike those of other small cats. Its lustrous coat and physical appearance led to the initial hypothesis that the Pallas Cat was the ancestor of Persian Cats, a theory now known to be incorrect. Hair are white tipped, giving the cat a frosted snowy appearance. Several dark spots and stripes exist on head and body.

A solitary and crepuscular hunter, Pallas Cat takes small animals usually including rodents, insects and birds. It uses either the stalk and ambush approach characteristic of most felines or directly attacks dens and burrows of small animals where it either waits outside them for the prey to appear or attempts to paw them out. It is often seen resting inside burrows of other animals as well.

Suited for a cold habitat Pallas Cat, Otocolobus Manul, resides in the snowy mountains and harsh plains of Central Asia. It inhabits a number of countries in that region and is divided into the following subspecies based on its geographical distribution.

Otocolobus Manul Manul - China and Mongolia

Otocolobus Manul Nigripecta - Kashmir, Nepal, Tibet

Otocolobus Manul Ferrugnea - Caspian Sea to Pakistan

Pallas Cat, also known as Manul, comes into estrus early in the year and gives birth to a big litter of up to six kittens after a pregnancy lasting around ten weeks. Maturity is reached at one year of age. Lifespan of up to twelve years has been recorded in captivity.

Hunted in the past for its lustrous cat, Pallas Cat is now protected as a species in most countries. Still it suffers from depletion of its prey base through poisoning of rodents that are believed to be pests for the fields. The poison also kills the cats, as does the disease toxoplasmosis to which this beautiful cat is particularly vulnerable. Current classification, however, still remains Not Threatened.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Marbled Cat

Marbled CatResembling a miniature Clouded Leopard, the Marbled Cat is a beautiful feline of South and Southeast Asia. It is another cat adept at an arboreal lifestyle. Weighing around ten pounds it is up to three and a half feet long, it's tail nearly comprising half of that. Pardofelis Marmorata, Marbled Cat is believed to be closely related to the Asian Golden Cat.

Elongated canines and fur pattern highlight the resemblance of the Marbled Cat with the Clouded Leopard. Tail is more bushy though and face resembles smaller felines. Fur is brownish yellow and covered with big blotches on body, spots on limbs and stripes on face and neck. The long tail, believed to assist in tree climbing, is spotted and tipped with black. Ears are small and rounded, forehead is wide and pupils appear to be large. It is believed that the cats hunt both on ground and trees, taking birds, insects, frogs, lizards and rodents as prey animals.

Few sightings of the Marbled Cat have occurred in the dense forests of its terrain. It is known to extend from Nepal and Assam in India down to Malaysia and Borneo in Southeast Asia. Two subspecies are recorded:

Pardofelis Marmorata Marmorata - Nepal

Pardofelis Marmorata Charltoni - Southeast Asia

A solitary and nocturnal feline, the Marbled Cat is known to have a gestational period of around eighty days following which two kittens on average are born. The fur pattern is less well defined in early age. Maturity is reached at around twenty one months. Though not many specimens exist in captivity, lifespan has been recorded to be up to twelve years.

Natural habitat of the Marbled Cat is rapidly shrinking owing to human encroachment. Less than ten thousand adults are believed to exist in the wild. Accompanied by hunting pressures to a degree this has led to this beautiful cat being currently classified as vulnerable.

Margay

MargayMargay is a South American wild cat that shares much physical resemblance with its cousins Ocelot and Oncilla. Leopardus Wiedii, it is often called Tree Ocelot owing to its unparalleled arboreal skills among cats. Weighing usually in the range of ten to fifteen pounds, it is up to four feet long, inclusive of tail.

Fur is yellowish in base coloration. There are various dark markings in the form of blotches over its body. Belly and under parts are lighter. Tails are long and ringed. Subspecies living at higher altitudes have greater spots and marks than the cats living in plains. An extraordinary morphological trait is the ankle joint that allows movement of 180° of its paws, enabling the Margay to descend head first from trees, hang from its branches with just one foot and move upside down beneath branches - giving the cat an almost ape-like ease of movement on trees.

Despite the predominantly arboreal lifestyle, Margay also hunts on ground taking a variety of animals including insects, squirrels, lizards, birds, eggs, tree frogs and small monkeys. It is often seen moving speedily among trees chasing monkeys. A nocturnal and solitary feline, alongside Clouded Leopard, Margay is believed to be the best tree climber among cats.

Seen in a number of South American countries, Margay, also known as the Long-tail Spotted Cat, is divided into a number of subspecies based upon its regional distribution:

Margay distributionLeopardus Wiedii Wiedii - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay

Leopardus Wiedii Nicaraguae - Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua

Leopardus Wiedii Pirrensis - Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru

Leopardus Wiedii Amazonicus - Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela

Leopardus Wiedii Boliviae - Bolivia

Leopardus Wiedii Salvinius - Chiapas, El Salvador and Guatemala

Leopardus Wiedii Yucatanicus - Yucatán

Leopardus Wiedii Cooperi - Mexico

Leopardus Wiedii Glauculus - Mexico

Leopardus Wiedii Oaxacensis - Mexico

Even as some evidence suggests that the cats may be sociable in the wild, they are generally thought to be solitary. Generally one kitten is born after a pregnancy lasting around eighty days. Maturity is reached within the first year of life. Lifespan of up to twenty years has been recorded in captivity.

Fur trade and loss of habitat have had serious toll on the numbers of Margay in the wild. Still the resilient cat has managed to survive and maintain its niche in nature. It is therefore believed to be still abundant in the forests of South America, rendering it the current classification of Least Concern.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Tiger Cat

Tiger CatTiger Cat is a small wild cat that inhabits the rain forests of Latin America. Leopardus Tigrinus, it is also named Oncilla, Little Spotted Cat, Tigrillo and Cunaguaro. It is said to have a close genetic and physical resemblance with Ocelot and Margay. About two feet long with a one and a half foot tail, it is longer than the domestic cat, yet it weighs less - in the range of five to ten pounds.

Base color of the fur is tawny. There are many dark colored spots and blotches over its body and limbs. Underside of the body is light and generally lacks spots. Tail is ringed and tipped with black. Skull is small and narrow. Melanistic individuals are sometimes recorded, usually in dense forests where the dark coloration possibly aids in camouflage. Tiger Cats living at higher altitudes generally have greater body markings than the lowland felines of the species.

Solitary and nocturnal, the Tiger Cat is a good climber and often hunts birds. Mainstay though is a terrestrial lifestyle unlike the arboreal dwelling of the Margay. Insects, rodents and reptiles are commonly hunted.

Dense forests of the South American countries are the habitat of the Little Spotted Cat, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. Following subspecies are described on the basis of their distribution:

Leopardus Tigrinus Tigrinus - Brazil, Guyana and Venezuela

Leopardus Tigrinus Guttulus - Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina

Leopardus Tigrinus Pardinoides - Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador

Leopardus Tigrinus Oncilla
- Costa Rica

Gestational period is of two and a half months in case of Oncilla, after which two babies on average are born. Their development is slower in comparison to the domestic kittens. Life span is believed to be up to fifteen years.

Tiger Cat is maintained in captivity in a number of South American and European Zoos even as it is under threat in the wild owing to deforestation and hunting for fur trade. It is currently classified as near threatened.

Kodkod

The smallest cat in the West, Kodkod is a little known wild feline of the Andes. A tiny cat, it weighs merely around five pounds and is less than two feet long and one foot tall, with a short tail. Leopardus Guigna it is often spelled as Codcod and called alternatively Guiña, Hûina or Huiña. The rare feline bears a close resemblance to Geoffrey's Cat and Pampas Cat and is considered by some to be a subspecies of the former.

Coloring is in the range of yellow to gray-brown with dark spots and stripes often seen on trunk and limbs. Belly and underside is usually white though all black specimens are often recorded as well. Tail is short and ringed. Feet are large and head is short and wide in proportion to the cat's body size.

As with many of the small, elusive wild cats, detailed behavioral and hunting information is lacking about the Kodkod. It is known to be nocturnal though and a good tree climber. In daytime it is reputed to rest in trees and ground. Some reports suggest that it is not a solitary feline and may well have a social lifestyle like that of lions. Prey animals include small rodents, insects and birds. The larger male Kodkods have been known to take domestic poultry in areas where human settlements are next to the wild cat's domain.

Kodkod distributionThe Kodkod resides in mountainous regions of Chile and Argentina in South America. It lives in dense rainforests, preferring to stay close to water bodies. Two subspecies are recognized, that differ in their geographical location and physical appearance:

Leopardus Guigna Guigna - Southern Chile and Argentina

Leopardus Guigna Tigrillo
- Central Chile

Pregnancy lasts around two and a half months for Kodkod after which an average of two babies are born. Lifespan has been known to be up to eleven years.

Numbers in the wild are not well known though it is understood that the cat is quite rare and continually threatened by habitat destruction. Probably very few or no specimens exist in zoos though captive breeding is said to be carried out in certain private programs. The current classification is vulnerable.

Chinese Mountain Cat

Also known as the Chinese Desert Cat, the Chinese Mountain Cat is a small wild cat that resides mainly in parts of Western China. Felis Bieti, it is considered to be closely related to the Jungle Cat and the Wild Cat, some experts even claiming that it is a subspecies of the latter. Weighing around fifteen pounds, the cat is nearly four feet long, including tail, and stands at just under a foot at shoulders.

Bearing some physical resemblance to the European Wild Cat, the Chinese Mountain Cat has a yellowish gray coat, interspersed with black hair and few markings. Underparts are often of an orange coloration. Brownish lines run across cheeks. Hind feet are often brown as well. Tail is thick and ringed with black, along with a black tip. Ears are set widely apart on the flat skull and highlighted by prominent ear tufts. Feet are covered with hair on the underside like the Sand Cat and Black-footed Cat, possibly to aid the feline to move about on hot and cold surfaces in summer and winter in its tough habitat.

Little is understood about the lifestyle of the Chinese Mountain Cat, also known as the pale desert cat; pale cat and grass cat, though it is believed to inhabit thinly wooded jungles and occasionally deserts at high altitudes in parts of Western China. A nocturnal feline, it is known to prey upon pikas, birds and rodents.

There are reports of the cat's sightings in Mongolia and some authorities classify the Chinese Mountain Cat into three subspecies based upon regional differences:

Felis Bieti Bieti - Sichuan and Kansu provinces China

Felis Bieti Vellerosa -
Shensi province China

Felis Bieti Chutuchta -
Mongolia

The Chinese Desert Cats are said to have a mating season in the beginning of the year, typically in February. A medium sized litter of two to four babies is born on average in May, the young gaining independence by eight months of age.

The geographical range of this cat overlaps that of the giant panda. Habitat destruction, limited distribution and poisoning of the prey species have meant that the rare Chinese Mountain Cat is now classified as vulnerable.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Black-footed Cat

The smallest cat in Africa, the Black-footed Cat is also the fiercest. With a body weight of up to four pounds on average and length no more than two and a half feet, including tail, Felis Nigripes is one of the tiniest wild cat species in the world. Despite its small size, the cat is quite powerful and resilient, well known in local folklore for its bravery.

Fur is tawny to reddish in color and marked by dark spots that form stripes on limbs. The undersides of the feet are black, thus the name, and so is the tip of tail. Head is broad and ears rounded, the former often appearing large in contrast to the small body size. In aggressive and hunting profile, the ears are often flattened as the cat goes after its prey with practically no cover over the vast plains of its natural habitat.

Usually insects, small animals including rodents and birds are taken by this solitary and nocturnal feline. Opportunistic predators, they often attack birds and their young in the nest, consuming eggs. Larger prey species including adult Cape Hares and even the young of sheep are preyed upon by this courageous feline as it takes down bigger animals by hanging to their neck and biting through the victim's jugular vein. Successful hunters, Black-footed cats usually employ the stalk and ambush method and often consume large feeds during a hunting session, up to one fifth of their own body weight. Like some big cats, they have a habit of caching and returning to their prey later on. The lack of water in their habitat means that the cats quench their thirst through the moisture obtained from their kills. At times grass is also eaten, possibly to regulate the digestive system.

Expert at climbing and digging, the Black-footed cats usually spend their day time residing in burrows and termite mounds, giving rise to their name 'the Ant-hill Tiger'. At night the felines move over large distances, eliciting loud meows to communicate with each other - the sounds often compared to a tiger's roar. As part of adaptation for survival on the unforgiving African plains the Black-footed Cat, also known as the 'little spotted cat', has a limited estrus cycle and gestation period - the female only receptive for a few hours over a day and a half period, and giving birth to a small litter of one to two kittens after a pregnancy lasting just over two months, meaning that the tiny cat is vulnerable for a very short period of time from predators like jackals and big night owls. Young grow quickly but gain independence at a longish age of nearly two years. Lifespan of over ten years is recorded in captivity.

Like its northern cousin the Sand Cat, the Black-footed Cat resides in dry areas and plains, only in the southern African nations of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, even though sightings have been reported in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Two subspecies are described over its geographical range:

Felis Nigripes Nigripes - northern South Africa and Namibia

Felis Nigripes Thomasi - southern South Africa and Botswana

Experts argue over the conservation status of the Black-footed Cat. Owing to little hunting pressure and persecution as well as its reclusive lifestyle the beautiful cat is believed by many to be common in its territories, however indiscriminate trapping and poisoning intended for other carnivora may lead to a decline in its number, leading to it being classified as vulnerable currently.

Bay Cat

Bay Cat is another feline about which very little is understood owing to its rarity. Residing solely on the island of Borneo, it is also known as Bornean Bay Cat, Bornean Red Cat or Bornean Cat. So reclusive is this cat that it was only in the last decade that the first live specimen was successfully photographed. Bearing close genetic resemblance to the Asian Golden Cat, it is in fact smaller in size - weighing up to ten pounds and having a body length of just under three feet, including tail.

Pardofelis Badia, the Bay Cat is described to occur in two different color variants - reddish brown and bluish gray. Light colored spots exist on undersides and limbs. Face and tail is marked with white stripes, the latter ending in a white tip. Ears are rounded and dark colored, as is the head, marked often by an 'M-shaped' marking. The cat's teeth are unique and the overall appearance bears a striking resemblance with the Jaguarundi.

Very little is known about the behavior, diet and activity patterns of this reclusive feline. It is believed to feed on small animals and monkeys as well as birds and carrion. The reproductive profile of the Bay Cat is also poorly understood.

The Bay Cat is so named since nearly all its sightings have taken place in bay areas, around water bodies, mangroves and swamps - this may be due to the preference of such a habitat for its abode by the cat or simply researcher bias of the area of study. It does however reside solely in the thick rainforests of Borneo.

Even as numbers in the wild are not accurately known, the cat is classified as endangered and faces rapid habitat erosion owing to accelerated logging in parts of Borneo.

Andean Mountain Cat

Andean Mountain CatThe rarest cat in Americas, the Andean Mountain Cat is perhaps the least studied feline in the world. Known also as Andean Highland Cat or simply the Andean Cat, it lives in the arid deserts of the high Andes. Given the taxonomic name of the Leopardus Jacobitus, known also as Oreailurus Jacobita, the beautiful cat is often likened to the elusive Snow Leopard owing to similarities in the lifestyle of the two cats. The Andean Cat is nearly two feet long with an approximately one and a half foot tail and stands just over one foot tall at shoulders. Weight is in the range of ten to fifteen pounds.


In adaptation to its high altitude habitat, the cat's coat is long and thick with a base color ranging from gray to reddish brown. Irregular stripes, spots and markings are found on the body, in particular on limbs and the lighter under surface. Tail is long and thick, possibly aiding the cat in its quick movements on rocky cliffs and uncertain terrains. It is banded with dark rings and is light colored at the tip.

Believed to be an opportunistic predator, the Andean Mountain Cat is thought to prey on small animals including chinchillas, viscachas, insects, lizards and birds. Little is known about the social structure and behavior and reproductive profile owing to the extreme rarity of scientific observations of this elusive feline, due to its remote geographical distribution.

The Andean Cat is considered to exist in scattered territories across high altitudes of Andes in dry, rocky and harsh areas in four countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. It has low population densities and lives a solitary life in areas often separated by human settlements. No subspecies are recognized.

Owing to our lack of research data and information, the exact numbers in the wild and conservation status of this beautiful cat are unknown. No specimens exist in captivity. Average lifespan is therefore unestablished. Conservation status is not entirely known however persecution by humans, including killing the cats owing to local superstitions and hunting them for skins and stuffed cats, have led to the classification of the Andean Mountain Cat as endangered!