A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World
Wild cats are shy, elusive creatures who avoid human encounters. Most are nocturnal and prefer to live in dense cover. Their habitats are often remote and difficult to access, so how do scientists learn about their behaviour and ecology?
Conservation, or field, research is the scientific study of a species natural history in their native habitat. Where are the cats located? What kind of habitat do they use? What do they eat? What are their activity patterns and social organizations? How many are there?
Without knowing all these answers, it is impossible to design an effective conservation plan.
Before cats can be studied, they must first be captured and restrained to allow radio-collaring, measurements and collection of biological samples. Baited cages or box traps are often used effectively. These traps have one or two doors activated by a food treadle or tripwire, trapping the animal inside. Given the aggressiveness of wild cats, they must be chemically immobilized with drugs that rapidly induce reliable and reversible immobilization.
Foot snares and padded leghold traps may also be used, but not in habitats where the captured cats are at risk from other predators. Other unique capture methods include bows & arrows used by local tribesmen in Africa to immobilize Lions and Leopards; Jaguar and Cougar are chased and treed by dogs, then immobilized and lowered to the ground; Tigers on the ground have been darted by men sitting in trees.
Due to the difficulty in observing individual cats, radio-telemetry is one of the most important tools for the study of wild cat behaviour. Cats are well suited for radio collaring because they have relatively large heads and narrower necks. Most collars weigh less than 3-5% of the cats’ body weight.
A radio transmitter is attached to the immobilized cat, which broadcasts signals that can be received at remote locations. Transmissions on different cats are broadcast on different radio frequencies, permitting researchers to locate and track several animals at a time. The most commonly obtained information is the location of the cat and their level of activity, but telemetry data can also answer questions related to their social relationships, hunting behaviour and habitat preference. Signals are detected by an antenna and heard through a receiver carried by the biologist, or mounted at a fixed location.
Biologists are increasingly turning to GPS radio collars, which replace radio transmissions with data sent directly to a computer. GPS units calculate the exact hourly location of the collar and allow researchers to study the cats’ movements, behaviour, habitat use and interaction with humans. The collars contain a satellite transceiver and a server that delivers data to the research team via email.
Increasing use is also being made of non-intrusive camera traps. These cameras are set up on game trails or paths, and are activated by the animal when it walks in front of it. These photos provide the basic data for population analysis and document the presence or absence of wildlife in a given area.
Other study methods include direct observation of cats such as Lions and Cheetahs, observation of field tracks, and night time observations using night-vision binoculars, video cameras or low-intensity spot lamps. Collection of their scat, or feces, tells researchers what is in their diet, although some of the smaller felines bury their feces, making these surveys impossible.
DNA is extracted from their scats or hair samples and can be used to estimate the number of animals in an area. Surveys are used where researchers interview locals on their sightings and observations of wild cats. This anecdotal evidence is particularly useful before a comprehensive field study is begun.