By Sriyanie Miththapala, 27th July 2022
Funding for conservation is largely funnelled towards charismatic, endemic or threatened animals, favouring big, bold and beautiful species. In Sri Lanka, researchers, wildlife enthusiasts and photographers focus primarily on the Sri Lankan leopard Panthera pardus kotiya, which is categorized as Endangered on Sri Lanka’s National Red List. However, the jungle cat Felis chaus, its common, shy and far less charismatic relative, receives little or no attention.
The jungle cat is categorized as Near Threatened on the National Red List. We felt is also deserved time in the spotlight and to be studied as much as its larger cousin. We wanted to identify where jungle cats can be found and how they use their habitat in Sri Lanka, to help ensure this common species remains common. Our observations indicated that the species may have a greater tolerance for human activities than previously believed, and we hypothesised that it is more widespread than described in the 2012 National Red List assessment.
With a small grant from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, our team enlisted the support of wildlife photographers and enthusiasts, as well as other field biologists, to send us their geo-referenced photographs. Anya Ratnayaka and Ashan Thudugalla, of the NGO Small Cat Advocacy and Research, collected data on sightings from newspapers, and used the power of social media to search for the tags #junglecat or #felischaus for any information they could find. They also used personal contacts made during fieldwork and through awareness programmes, requesting for any jungle cat sightings to be uploaded onto their small cat distribution map (save.cat).
During 2016–2019, we were able to collect 112 jungle cat records, considerably increasing the 21 records of the National Red List of 2012. These new records expanded the 2012 range for this species in Sri Lanka and validated our hypothesis that the jungle cat is more widespread than previously believed. They also showed that jungle cats were sighted in human-dominated landscapes such as paddy fields and home gardens and appear to prefer the drier areas of the island.
We used these records to model habitat suitability for the species. Using MaxEnt software, we were able to confirm that the jungle cats preferred the dry zone of Sri Lanka. We also found that the species occurs both within and outside protected areas, just like the Sri Lankan leopard and fishing cat Prionailurus viverrinus, and the Sri Lankan elephant Elephas maximus maximus.
Our yet unpublished data show that the jungle cat is indeed—as Mel and Fiona Sunquist noted in their 1981 book Wild Cats of the World—‘a very adaptable cat’ that prefers open/scrub forests and open habitats (grasslands, paddy fields) to dense forest. As noted above, it is also seen close to human habitation and cultivation. Although it is most active around midnight, it can be seen throughout the day as well.
Unfortunately, eight of our 112 records were road kills. Although habitat destruction remains the primary threat, irresponsible driving within and around national parks and natural spaces continues to put wildlife at risk. Therefore, it is vital that all threats to this species are investigated.
Although our study provides a model for how ecological and behavioural information for common species could be obtained inexpensively, and incorporated into species distribution models, it also points to some important knowledge deficits. Incomplete field knowledge of the distribution of the species within the island requires further investigation using camera traps and GPS collars. Such studies will also further our understanding of the species’ habitat use and activity patterns.
The article Using citizen science to study a mesocarnivore: the jungle cat Felis chaus in Sri Lanka is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.