National Geographic : 2017 Feb
110 national geographic • February 2017 example, is the smallest cat in Africa, weighing less than five pounds. But it’s nicknamed the ant- hill tiger because it lives in abandoned termite mounds and fights tooth and claw if threatened, even jumping in the face of the much larger jack- al. The resourceful fishing cat of South Asia is a denizen of swamps and wetlands but can scratch out a living wherever fish are found. Cameras in downtown Colombo, Sri Lanka, once caught a fishing cat stealing koi from an office fishpond. It was a “shocker to all of us,” says Anya Ratnay- aka, the primary researcher at the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project. “There’s not a wetland anywhere near this place.” Small wildcats have adopted other clever ways to coexist. In Suriname, Sanderson and his col- leagues photographed five cat species living in the same rain forest: jaguar, puma, ocelot, mar- gay, and jaguarundi. They do this by “dividing space and time,” he says. Each animal has its niche, whether it’s hunting on the ground during the day, like the jaguarundi, or hunting in the trees at night, like the margay. Though some small cats are capable of killing goats and sheep, they pose no threat to humans. On the contrary, as predators often at the top of their food chain, they help keep ecosystems run- ning smoothly and prey populations—including many rodents—in check. oF the FiVe continentS roamed by wildcats, Asia has the most to lose. Not only is it home to the greatest number of small-cat species—14— it’s also where the animals are least understood and under the greatest threat. Much of Southeast Asia’s forestland has been developed or turned into sprawling plantations for palm oil, a common food ingredient whose production has doubled worldwide since 2000. This is likely devastating for the flat-headed cat and the fishing cat, both animals that typically rely on lowland wetlands for the fish they eat. The spread of palm oil plantations is such a concern that Le Parc des Félins, a zoological park outside Paris that houses the most species of small cats in the world, has put two shopping carts on display—one filled with products made Antarctica) and are superbly adapted to an array of natural—and increasingly unnatural—environ- ments, from deserts to rain forests to city parks. Unfortunately, these lesser members of the family Felidae also live in the long shadow cast by their larger cousins, the big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and their kin. These celebrity species at- tract the lion’s share of attention and conserva- tion dollars, even though 12 of the world’s 18 most threatened wild felids are small cats. Jim Sanderson, a small-cat expert and program manager at the Texas-based Global Wildlife Con- servation, estimates that more than 99 percent of funds spent on wild felids since 2009 have gone to help jaguars, tigers, and other large cats. As a result, many small cats are vastly understud- ied or not studied at all. Their skill at eluding attention also contributes to their obscurity. The rarely seen bay cat, for example, is na- tive only to the forests of Borneo and remains as opaque to science as it was in 1858, the year of its discovery. All that’s known of Southeast Asia’s marbled cat comes from a study of a single fe- male in Thailand. “We have no idea what it eats,” Sanderson says. Small cats suffer another disadvantage: peo- ple’s tendency to view them as simply wild versions of their own pets. (The domestic cat— considered a subspecies of the wildcat—evolved from wildcats in the Fertile Crescent about 10,000 years ago.) The public isn’t as “awe- inspired” by small cats as by more exotic beasts, says Alexander Sliwa, a curator at Germany’s Co- logne Zoo. “ This perpetuates the situation that little is known about smaller cats, and if you can’t tell people about a cat’s biology or lifestyle, then people are not hooked.” They should be. Small cats are lean feats of evo- lution, high-performance predators that hit their stride millions of years ago and have changed little ever since. What they lack in stature, they make up for in grit. The black-footed cat, for Photo Ark is a joint project of National Geographic and Joel Sartore. Learn more at natgeophotoark.org.