CatSG

Leopard cat

Prionailurus bengalensis

IUCN Red List: Least Concern

Weight: 1.6-8 kg
Body length: 45-65 cm
Tail length: 20-30 cm
Longevity: up to 13 years
Litter size: 2-3 cubs

Description

The leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) belongs to the genus Prionailurus. The Iriomote cat P. b. iriomotensis (inhabiting the Japanese Iriomote Island) is considered to be a subspecies of the leopard cat based on genetic analysis; previously it was described as a separate species based on morphological differences. The taxonomic status and genetic variation of the leopard cat is currently being studied. On the basis of morphological analysis, several subspecies have been described: P. b. borneoensis on Borneo, P. b. heaneyi on Palawan island (Philippines), P. b. javenensis on Java and Bali, P. b. rabori on Negros, Cebu and Panay islands (Philippines) and P. b. sumatranus occurring on Sumatra and the offshore island of Tebingtinggi. There are genetic analyses in progress to confirm the taxonomic distinction of the probable subspecies P. b. rabori. On the mainland, only the subspecies P. b. bengalensis is described nowadays whereas in the past, distinct subspecies including P. b. euptilurus (Amur leopard cat) inhabiting the Korean Peninsula, the Russian Far East and northeastern China.

The leopard cat looks like a miniature, long-legged and more slender version of a leopard. It has a round head, a short narrow muzzle and big rounded ears. Its fur varies highly in colour and markings according to the region. In the tropics, its fur is ochre or yellowish-brown with white underparts, while in the northern part of the species’ range, leopard cats have greyish brown thick fur and are also larger and heavier than the ones in the south. The size and shape of the black markings covering the body and limbs are also highly variable; the spots sometimes form lines along the neck and back. Often there is one stripe running along the length of the body. The tail is about half as long as the body, spotted and sometimes bears a few rings near the black tip. The ears have black backs with a white central spot and the face is marked with two dark stripes on the forehead. The cat has two narrow black cheek stripes enclosing a white spot. The irises are deep, golden brown to grey. Males are larger than females.

The subspecies P.b. iriomotensis has a dusky brown pelt with rather long hair, patterned with horizontal rows of darker spots which tend to form indistinct bands. 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Afghanistan (Dari)

psk jangley

Bangladesh

chita biral, ban bilar

Chinese

jin chien mao, bao mao, shih hu, shan mao

English

bengal cat

French

chat léopard du Bengale

German

Bengalkatze

India (Kannada)

chita billi; huli bekku

Indonesia

kucing batu, kucing congkok

Laos

sua meo, sua pa, sua nak

Mahratti, Ghats (India)

wagati

Malaysia

kucing batu, rimau akar

Myanmar (Kachin; Karen, Talain; Shan) 

kye thit, thit kyuk, kya gyuk (nam laniao; kla hla; hen wap)

Pakistan

chita billi

Phillippines

maral, tamaral

Russia

amurskii kot, bengalskaya koshka

Spanish

gato bengali, gato de Bangala

Thailand

maew dao

Irimote Cat

French

chat d'Iriomote

German

Iriomote-Katze

Japonese

yameneko

Spanish

gato d'Iriomote

Status and Distribution

The leopard cat is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. Its population status and trends are unknown, but it appears to be relatively common and widespread with stable populations in many areas as indicated by relatively frequent detections during camera trap studies in different habitats, including disturbed areas, throughout its range. However, island populations are vulnerable. The subspecies P. bengalensis iriomotensis is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List since it numbers less than 250 individuals and consists of a single subpopulation. It inhabits only a very small area of Iriomote Island. The Iriomote cat population was estimated to be less than 100 individuals in 1994. It was previously considered stable, but currently the population is thought to be decreasing. The Iriomote cat is listed as Endangered on Japan’s 2002 national Red List. The subspecies P. bengalensis rabori occurring on the Philippine islands is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List and may have been eliminated from most of its former range on other islands. On the Tsushima Island of Japan, the leopard cat has decreased over the last 30-40 years. In India, the leopard cat is considered endangered.

The density of the leopard cat in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, has been estimated, using capture-recapture data from camera traps, as 9.6/100 km² in the Deramakot Forest Reserve, 12.4/100 km² in Tangkulap Pinangah Forest Reserve and 16.5/100 km² in Segaliud Lokan Forest Reserve. In the Western Ghats, India, densities of 10.45 and 4.48 animals/100 km² were found in the Badhra and Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserves, respectively. 

The leopard cat occurs throughout most of India, west into Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its range extends into the Himalayan foothills, across most of China, and north to the Korean peninsula and into the Russian Far East. It is found in most of Southeast Asia: Thailand, Vietnam and China; and on the islands of Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Taiwan as well as on small islands off South Korea (Tshushima islands; Cheju island) and the Philippine islands of Palawan, Panay, Negros, Cebu and possibly also Masbate. The leopard cat is the only wild cat species which is native to Japan and the Philippines. 

Extant distribution area of the leopard cat (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015).

Habitat

The leopard cat occurs in a variety of habitats from tropical rainforests to temperate broadleaf and dry coniferous forests. It can also be found in shrub forests and successional grasslands as well as in hilly and mountainous regions. Leopard cats are found in the forested regions of eastern Afghanistan. It is found throughout the warmer tropical forests of Southeast Asia all the way to China and Korea. In Russia, it occurs in the deciduous oak forests of southeast Siberia. The leopard cat is not usually found in cold steppe grasslands and normally does not inhabit arid zones, although there are a few records from relatively dry and treeless areas in Pakistan. The leopard cat shows some tolerance to habitat disturbance. It can live close to rural settlements and there are records of it using forest fragments for resting and breeding. It is common in dense secondary forest, including logged areas, and has been found in agricultural areas, including plantations (rubber tree, oil palm, sugarcane) although animals in these areas might remain somewhat dependent on forest fragments for breeding. However, it has been known to breed in coffee plantations in southern India. The leopard cat usually lives close to water sources and can occupy refuge strips of riverine forest in areas otherwise deforested.

The leopard cat occurs over a wide elevation range, from sea level to >4,000 m elevation, the latter being in the Himalayas. In the Makalu-Barun National Park in eastern Nepal, a leopard cat was pictured at 3,254 m elevation and in Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, Nepal, a leopard cat was detected with camera traps at 4,474 m elevation. 

Leopard cat in palm oil plantation.
Leopard cat passing through palm oil plantation.
Leopard cat in primary forest.
Leopard cat on a logging road.
Leopard cat in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Malaysia.
Leopard cat habitat, Cambodia.

Ecology and Behaviour

The leopard cat is a solitary species but has been observed in pairs or with dependent young. It is mainly described as nocturnal and crepuscular. However, the leopard cat can also be active during the day with males showing more diurnal activity than females. In Thailand, four radio-collared individuals were frequently active during the day. There seems to be no significant difference in the size of home ranges between females and males. Home range size varies from 3 to 14 km² depending on the region. In the Phu Khieu Wildlife Sanctuary, Thailand, the mean home range size was 12.7 km² while in other areas of Thailand the mean is 4.5 km² and on Borneo 3.5 km². Home range sizes estimated for the Iriomote cat ranged from 1.4 to 5.8 km². The leopard cat tends to use larger home ranges during the wet season than the dry season. The leopard cat uses forests and understory for resting and breeding. It is an adept climber and has been spotted resting in trees. The leopard cat is a good swimmer and has successfully colonized offshore islands throughout its range. It hunts on the ground and in trees and it has been kept by humans as a rodent control agent in some areas.

In the northern part of its range, breeding is reported to take place once a year between February and March. In the tropics breeding can occur year round. Gestation lasts for 56-70 days. The leopard cat is usually sexually mature at around 18 months old, but sometimes as young as eight months. 

Leopard cat with kitten.
Leopard cat with kitten.
Leopard cat scent marking.
Leopard cat sniffing on the ground.
Leopard cat hiding.

Prey

The leopard cat’s main prey are rodents such as rats and mice. Its diet also includes young ungulates, hares, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, eels and fish, although the relative importance of each prey species varies across its range. It occasionally takes carrion and poultry.

In studies in Thailand and Java, murids dominated the diet, but the leopard cat also preyed on lizards, amphibians, birds and insects. Likewise in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, leopard cats were found to consume mostly murids with Whitehead’s rat (Maxomys whiteheadi) as the most frequent prey species followed by the dark-tailed tree rat (Niviventer cremoriventer). On both Tsushima and Iriomote Islands, rats were also the dominant prey items, but other mammals, birds, amphibians and skinks were also consumed. In Pakistan, it has been reported that leopard cats prey predominantly on small birds with mice and flying squirrels being less important in their diet.

Leopard cat with its prey.
Leopard cat carrying a rodent.

Main Threats

The leopard cat seems to be more tolerant to deforestation and habitat alteration than other Asian felids, with the exception of the jungle cat. The leopard cat uses also degraded forest and modified habitats such as oil palm plantations. However, the species is not invulnerable and in some parts of its range, populations are declining due to habitat loss or hunting. In disturbed regions and areas with greater human activity, it has a higher mortality than in protected areas where survival rates are higher. Leopard cat populations are especially vulnerable on small islands; for instance, the populations on the Philippines and Japan are seriously threatened. The subspecies P. b. rabori on the Philippines has already lost at least 95% of its former range and survives only in a few remaining pockets of forest on the islands of Panay, Negros and Cebu. None of these remaining forest areas are currently protected.

New studies suggest that the leopard cat populations in the north and south of India are not connected and the leopard cat may not occur in central and western India. In the Western Ghats in India its main threat is urbanisation. In China, the centre of its range, commercial exploitation has been heavy, especially in the southwest. In the 1980s several hundreds of thousands of furs per year were exported. The average number of furs per year was 150,000 from 1955 to 1981. Chinese exports of leopard cat furs were halted in 1993. Currently, the commercial trade is highly reduced but the leopard cat is still hunted throughout most of its range for its fur and meat or for the pet trade. It is still commercially traded internationally. In Lao PDR and Vietnam a main threat is direct and indirect hunting. Leopard cats can hybridize with domestic cats and such hybrids are sold on the pet market under the name “Bengal Cat” or “Safari cat”. Hybridisation in the wild has been reported but is not considered a serious threat.

The leopard cat is considered a poultry pest in many areas and killed in retribution. Snares set for other target species are also a serious problem.

The Iriomote cat is mostly threatened by habitat loss and traffic but newly introduced exotic animals and the spread of disease are potential threats too. 

Conservation Effort and Protection Status

The leopard cat is included on CITES Appendix II, and leopard cat populations in Bangladesh, India and Thailand are included in Appendix I (as Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis). The leopard cat is protected across part of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Thailand and Taiwan. Hunting and trade are regulated in South Korea, Lao PDR and Singapore. There is no legal protection outside protected areas in Bhutan, Brunei, China, and Vietnam. The leopard cat is on the protected species list of 2009 in Afghanistan and all hunting and trade is prohibited within the country. There is no information for North Korea. It is found in numerous protected areas. 

For the Critically Endangered Iriomote cat conservation measures have been implemented and it is quite well researched. The population was considered stable but it is now assumed that increasing tourism and habitat loss are negatively affecting the population.

Further research is needed to determine both the taxonomic and conservation status of the leopard cat. Although it seems to be tolerant to different types and levels of habitat disturbance, the degree of this tolerance is currently unknown and must be researched.