Thursday, November 05, 2009

Palm oil threatens Borneo's rarest cats

Jeremy Hance
November 04, 2009

Oil palm expansion is threatening Borneo's rarest wild cats, reports a new study based on three years of fieldwork and more than 17,000 camera trap nights. Studying cats in five locations—each with different environments—in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, researchers found that four of five cat species are threatened by habitat loss due to palm oil plantations.

The groundbreaking study, undertaken by Jo Ross and Andrew Hearn with the UK's Global Canopy Program's Bornean Wild Cat and Clouded Leopard Project, has uncovered some of the first data on Borneo's wild cats. The five cats species in Borneo include the Sunda clouded leopard, the bay cat, the marbled cat, the leopard cat, and the flat-headed cat.

"Sabah’s five species of wild cat are a special conservation treasure, and this study has made a tremendous contribution to knowledge about them," Director of the WildCRU Professor David Macdonald said. Having worked with wild cats around the world, MacDonald is chairing a workshop in Sabah with various stakeholders to discuss conservation measures to protect the island's cats.

Ross and Hearn discovered that Borneo's cats were present in both primary forests and recently logged over forest, yet only one of the five cat species—the leopard cat—utilizes palm oil plantations. The researchers say that their findings should give special emphasis to keeping remaining forests—even those recently logged—free from further palm oil expansion.

The researchers also succeeded in estimating population densities for the Sunda clouded leopard using camera traps, as well as radio collaring and tracking an individual clouded leopard. The Sunda clouded leopard, which is endemic to Borneo and Sumatra, has only recently been declared a distinct species from the mainland clouded leopard.

Ross and Hearn have also taken the first photographs of the elusive bay cat in Sabah, and have recorded the world's only video of the cat. Both the Sunda clouded leopard and the bay cat are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List.

Except for the leopard cat, Borneo's cats all occur in low densities. The study found that to have a viable population of 250 Sunda clouded leopards requires an area of 3,000-8,600 square kilometers (1,158-3,088 square miles). There are very places in Sabah with this much forest left.

"These wild cats, and especially the Sunda clouded leopard are important emblems of Borneo’s forests, and it is vital to conserve them as umbrella species which provide protection to forest wildlife in general," Macdonald said.

The marbled cat and the flat-headed cat are both classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. The leopard cat is classified as Least Concern.

The workshop entitled "First Steps Towards Conserving Bornean Wild Cats" is hosted by the Sabah Wildlife Department in collaboration with Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Global Canopy Program's Bornean Wild Cat and Clouded Leopard Project.


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