Rare photos provide a glimpse into the lives of wild cats in the tropical jungles of Malaysia

By | April 2, 2024

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The tropical jungle of Malaysia is one of the most cat-rich areas on earth. It is best known for its tiger population, but it is also home to eight other species of wild cats, including the clouded leopard, bay cat and flat-headed cat.

These felines have flown under the radar as conservation efforts have focused on supporting the Malayan tiger, of which there are fewer than 150 left. But a photo series put together by Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, aims to give the smaller species their moment in the spotlight.

Over time, Panthera has collected a number of images of the different species, taken by camera traps and photographers, and hopes this will increase the public’s awareness of and connection with the less celebrated cats.

A flathead cat is photographed at night, next to the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo.  - Sebastian Kennerknecht/PantheraA flathead cat is photographed at night, next to the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo.  - Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera

A flathead cat is photographed at night, next to the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo. – Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera

These wild cats are notoriously elusive and, apart from the tiger, little studied. According to the IUCN Red List, the global inventory of endangered species, little data or population estimates are available for the Borneo brown cat, marbled cat and flat-headed cat. Despite this, almost all cat species in Malaysia are classified as endangered, vulnerable or near threatened due to habitat loss, poaching and climate change.

Roshan Guharajan, project coordinator for Panthera Malaysia, focuses on the Malaysian region of the island of Borneo, which is home to five species of wild cats. He has been working in the area for more than eight years, but has only seen the brown cat and the flat-headed cat in person once in that time. Both were fleeting moments, he says.

Flat-headed cats are the most elusive, he adds. They are about the size of a house cat and roam swampy wetlands, which are more difficult for humans to access. “We initially had difficulty systematically monitoring the species,” he says, but lately his team has had more success after targeting the edges of muddy swamps and lakes with camera traps.

By monitoring the different species, Panthera hopes to gather information about population size, range estimates and the threats they face.

A palm oil plantation borders a tropical rainforest in Malaysian Borneo.  Oil palm trees are one of the leading causes of deforestation in the region, but this has declined over the past decade.  - Sebastian Kennerknecht/PantheraA palm oil plantation borders a tropical rainforest in Malaysian Borneo.  Oil palm trees are one of the leading causes of deforestation in the region, but this has declined over the past decade.  - Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera

A palm oil plantation borders a tropical rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Oil palm trees are one of the leading causes of deforestation in the region, but this has declined over the past decade. – Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera

It also works with communities to improve land and forest management. Historically, palm oil and industrial plantations have been a major threat. According to research published in 2018, forest cover in Borneo decreased by 14% between 2000 and 2017, mainly due to clearing of forests for oil palm trees. It notes that forest loss peaked in 2016 before falling sharply in 2017. According to Global Forest Watch, forest cover across Malaysia has remained stable since 2020.

However, clearing of forests to make way for tree plantations remains a threat, Guharajan says, leading to fragmentation of wild cats’ habitat. He hopes that involvement in sustainable agriculture and conservation can help preserve the remaining habitat.

Sharing the spotlight

While most conservation efforts in the region have focused on the Malayan tiger, this is not a bad thing, says Guharajan, noting that the species is particularly targeted for poaching. Tiger body parts have a high market value: their bones are used for traditional medicines, their meat is consumed, their skins are made into carpets and their teeth are made into jewelry.

Malayan tigers are critically endangered, with fewer than 150 left in the wild.  - Panthera Malaysia/DWNPMalayan tigers are critically endangered, with fewer than 150 left in the wild.  - Panthera Malaysia/DWNP

Malayan tigers are critically endangered, with fewer than 150 left in the wild. – Panthera Malaysia/DWNP

As a result of these threats and declining tiger populations, “there has been significant investment in forest management and anti-poaching,” says Guharajan. “By default, this provides many benefits for all these different species.”

He explains that while some of the smaller cat species are not directly targeted for poaching, there are cases where they are caught in a snare intended for other animals or opportunistically shot by poachers. The wider anti-poaching efforts are helping to prevent this, with conservationists across Southeast Asia reporting positive results from their crime prevention measures.

Having a charismatic big cat like the Malayan tiger in the region helps bring in funding, Guharajan says, and he hopes raising awareness of the other wild cats will do the same. The photos help build “a level of connection” between the cats and the audience, he says. Ultimately, however, Guharajan believes that conservation work should not focus solely on one species. “We need to look at the spectrum: habitats, communities, cultures and also climate. They can all be used to conserve habitats and species,” he says.

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