Western Ghats potential stronghold for leopard cats: Study

Kolkata, June 27 (IANS) Prevention of massive land-use changes due to infrastructural projects in the Western Ghats could help conserve leopard cats and other small carnivores, says a new study. It establishes the region as a potential stronghold for the leopard cat population.

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS India Programme) have for the first time estimated the population densities of the species in the Western Ghats.

Researchers Arjun Srivathsa, Ravishankar Parameshwaran, Sushma Sharma and Ullas Karanth analysed camera-trap data from over a 2,075 sq km area covering Bhadra, Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT), Bandipur and Nagarahole Tiger Reserves.

“Photo-capture data from our camera surveys suggest that coffee plantations and multi-use forests adjoining protected forests support a host of small carnivores including jungle cats, rusty-spotted cats, palm civets, civets, and mongooses, besides a thriving leopard cat population,” said Srivathsa, research associate, and the lead author of the study.

“Preventing massive land-use changes for infrastructural projects in areas surrounding the reserves and retaining the landscape mosaic consisting of protected reserves partially modified forests, and coffee plantations may, therefore, facilitate the persistence and conservation of leopard cats and other small carnivores,” he said.

Comparable to domestic cats in size, leopard cats are identified by their characteristic dark stripes lining their head and running till the spine. The body is covered in spots, which like the tiger’s stripes and the leopard’s rosettes, help in individual identification.

The grossly understudied leopard cats face severe threats from habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as commercial exploitation for their skins, as well as for pet trade.

“Total effort of 16,736 camera-days across a 2,075 km square area resulted in 65 detections of 43 uniquely identified individuals,” said researchers.

The study titled ‘Estimating population sizes of leopard cats in the Western Ghats using camera surveys’ was published in the Journal of Mammalogy on June 24.

It revealed that Bhadra had the highest population density with over 10 leopard cats per 100 sq km area, followed by BRT with over four individuals per 100 sq km.

The survey yielded sparse data from Bandipur and Nagarahole. The authors assign possibility of ‘competitive exclusion’ due to high tiger and leopard densities in these two areas, as a potential reason. That apart, they reiterate the preference of wet areas by leopard cat species, given that Bhadra and BRT receive more rainfall.

In Bhadra, high leopard cat density areas were mostly restricted to secondary forests and coffee plantations outside park boundaries and village relocated sites within the reserve.

This is significant as these areas also tend to have greater populations of rodents; presence of leopard cats could therefore benefit people by keeping a check on rodent populations, the study said.

The authors state that the study establishes Western Ghats as a “potential stronghold for leopard cat populations”, and also call for more extensive assessments across the leopard cat’s distribution range.

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