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The Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis has the broadest geographic distribution of all small Asian Cats. It is found in much of Southeast Asia.
The Leopard Cat seems to be common across much of its range, e.g. China and Thailand. Leopard Cat populations are stable in many areas and the species’ high adaptability enables it to thrive even in altered habitats such as palm oil plantations. However, according to the IUCN Red List (2010), the species seems to be in decline in some parts of its range. Island populations are most vulnerable, but it is also said to be declining in Bangladesh, and vulnerable in India.
The Leopard Cat is widely distributed over China and exists probably in relatively large numbers compared to other felid species. With the exception of the deserts in the west, dry wilderness areas, and central parts of the Tibet Plateau, it is distributed all over the country. In the 1990s Leopard Cats were reported from the outskirts of Beijing, where they were thought to have disappeared years ago. However, only very few studies have really looked into the present status of the Leopard Cat.
The two subspecies P.B.bengalensis and P.B. phinensis were estimated to number 1.5 – 2 million in China in the 1990s. Even though hundreds of thousands were trapped for the fur trade in the 1980s, Leopard Cats still seem to be fairly common. But a decline in harvest in the last years of legal trapping may be an indication of over-hunting. Reasons for the Leopard Cat’s relative abundance in China compared to other cat species may include its use of a wide range of habitats, better adaptation to human settlements, and few large predators to compete with, since those have been overhunted or exterminated in certain areas.
In China, the Leopard Cat’s habitat varies widely. It occupies temperate, subtropical and tropical habitats, including primary and secondary forest, hill forest, shrub and grassland, but it is thought to prefer secondary forest and forest fringes. It is less common in the arid areas of the north and the north-west, as well as high mountain shrubland and highland grass habitat. It also lives in man-made economic forests (e.g. rubber and tea plantations and pine forests etc.) and agricultural landscapes, and is often seen near villages.
In China, commercial exploitation has been heavy for the last several decades, especially in the southwest. The earliest available harvest numbers are from 1952 and add up to around 14,000 skins. By 1981 this number had risen to 38,000 skins. In 1985-1988 very high estimates sometimes exceeded 400,000 skins and at least half of these skins came from Yunnan and Guizhou Province alone. Many of these skins were exported to Europe until their import was banned in 1988, due to concerns over the species’ status. Skins were also exported to Japan (50,000 skins in 1989), as well as surrounding regions (e.g. Nepal, Kashmir).
While export numbers were still high in 1988 (nearly 200,000 skins), they started to decline from less and 100,000 skins in 1989 to 8,000 in 1992 until export was suspended in 1993.
Major threats for this species in China in the past were over-harvesting and habitat loss with the strong deforestation during the rapid expansion of the human population. Nowadays, the extent of direct persecution in form of illegal harvest and of indirect persecution through secondary poisoning of rodents is not known. The Leopard Cat may profit from the human rural exodus, the reforestation and the decrease in commercial harvest, but there is no study available on the long-term population trends.
Current and future protection
Chinese export of Leopard Cat skins was suspended in April 1993. At that time, the Chinese authorities declared a stockpile of roughly 800,000 skins and said that there had been no legal taking of skins since 1989. China’s CITES Management Authority stated that export of skins or products not already held in stock was not permitted until a previously announced field survey had been completed, and a succeeding management program established. Because the field survey had not been completed, after the old stockpile from the 1990s had been exported to exhaustion, no export permits were issued in subsequent years.
There may be limited consumption in China’s domestic market, but the number should be low (perhaps a thousand or so yearly). This may indicate that the hunting pressure on the Chinese Leopard Cat population has been dramatically reduced in recent years. China’s massive natural forest protection campaign since 1998 may also be tremendously helpful for habitat recovery, which should be beneficial for the Leopard Cat. Nevertheless, until comprehensive status and trade surveys supported by population ecology studies have been carried out, the status of the Leopard Cat remains unclear.
Source: IUCN Cat News Special Issue Autumn 2010, Author Yu Jinping