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Feline Unseen: The African Golden Cat

  • The golden cat is so mysterious it wasn’t photographed in the wild until 2002, and researchers still disagree on its scientific name.
  • Some suggest there are 10,000 left in the wilds of Equatorial Africa, but no one really knows.
  • The African golden cat is most threatened by habitat loss; its stronghold is in the Congo Basin.

When you count off the cat species that roam Africa – leopards, lions, cheetahs – you could be forgiven for not listing the African golden cat (Caracal aurata). This small, elusive forest dweller easily slips by unnoticed, and until very recently, failed to show up on the radar screens of most conservationists.

Uncertainty and mystery shroud the golden cat: it’s one of the world’s least-studied felines. The first known photo of a wild individual in its habitat was not taken until 2002 by Phil Henschel, Lion Program Survey Coordinator for Panthera. Wildlife researchers can spend decades working in African equatorial forests without ever seeing one in the flesh, and that includes David Mills who studies the species for the Kibale Project in Uganda, Wildlife Conservation Society Uganda, and Panthera.

However, newly developed and deployed camera trap technology has been a game changer; it is allowing researchers to learn a lot, and quickly.

Small and powerful, the golden cat primarily hunts rodents on the forest floor. Photo credit: David Mills/ Panthera

“Since 2010, we have conducted seven camera surveys and accumulated nearly 300 independent golden cat captures in over 18,000 trap days,” David Mills told mongabay.com.

One of the first thing scientists learned is that the golden cat is far more vulnerable to extinction than anyone knew.

An update by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just this year raised the stakes for the African golden cat from Near Threatened to Vulnerable. The rainforest-loving species has been hard hit by deforestation, with an estimated 30 percent loss in numbers over the past 15 years (that’s three golden cat generations). “Additionally, the exacerbation of these threats due to population growth, projected mining activities and forest clearance for oil palm plantations will likely cause further reduction,” by at least a further 30 percent in the next 15 years, reports the IUCN. Indeed, researchers say the cat disappears from forests with a heavy human presence.

Unravelling an enigma

Previous studies have suggested around 10,000 golden cats are left in the wild, but nobody is sure: it’s not a figure scientists Bahaa-el-din and Mills verified with their research. The species roams the equatorial forests of Africa over two separate regions ­– one stretching across Central Africa from Uganda west to Gabon, and the other in West Africa stretching roughly from Ghana west to Guinea. Its main stronghold is in the forests of the Congo Basin.

Though the name suggests otherwise, the golden cat is not golden. Blends of golden/reddish-brown, grey and even black have been recorded. There’s some suggestion that the cat’s color may even change over time. One African golden cat is said to have changed color in captivity, but died soon after, with the change in hue possibly brought on by a special condition, rather than a common trait.

The color variants confused scientists early on as they tried to classify the cat’s taxonomy. A similarity in size and appearance with the Asian golden cat initially placed it in the genus Profelis, though others designated it Felis. Recent molecular studies proved both to be mistaken; the African golden cat is unequivocally genetically closer to the caracal – a medium sized wildcat also known as the African lynx. This led scientists to rename the species Caracal aurata. The designation remains somewhat controversial, with some researchers still preferring to use Profelis aurata. The animal’s taxonomy is currently under review by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group.

An adult African golden cat is small – from 61 to 101 centimeters (24 to 40 inches) in body length not counting the tail – slightly smaller than an American bobcat. Despite its diminutive size, the golden cat often occupies the role of apex predator in its forest ecosystem, with small prey such as rodents, duikers (antelopes) and birds making up most of its diet. Where leopards are present, golden cats hunt smaller prey, but where leopards are not, the diet of C. aurata (or P. aurata, if you like) becomes more robust, with much more duiker on the menu. At times, golden cats have turned up in the diet of leopards.

Earlier this year, sensational footage of a golden cat hunting a monkey in broad daylight was caught by a camera trap set up by Samuel Andjedakin, Field Manager of the Kibale Project in Uganda. The video is the first time such behavior – thought to be uncommon – has been caught on film. Also recent: a camera trap snapped photos of a mother golden cat accompanied by her kittens.

As for its other behaviors, much is unknown: even in our shrinking, wired world, some species remain a mystery.

In pursuit of the golden cat

The secrets that surround the golden cat are exactly what lures some to study it.

“Having long been interested in wild cats, and Africa, it was incredible to me that there was an almost unknown species waiting to be studied,” Laila Bahaa-el-din told mongabay.com. She is a Kwa-Zulu Natal University graduate working with Panthera and WildCRU. “What’s more, this is a species living within an area, and habitat, that is suffering extensive threats from people. So it was the combination of lack of knowledge, and growing threat, that first inspired me to study the golden cat.”

A golden cat, caught in a rare close up by a camera trap in Ivindo National Park, Gabon. The elusive species is one of the least-studied felines in the world. Photo credit: Laila Bahaa-el-din/ Panthera

Mills, a Panthera Kaplan scholar, sought to go where others dared not: “Golden cats were one of those neglected species. Their habitat and the extreme rarity of sightings seemed to discourage people from studying them… and I love cats and the rainforest, so it seemed like an obvious choice.”

When studying a notoriously shy species, a great deal of patience is required: three years passed before Bahaa-el-din came face to face with a golden cat in the wild. However, utilising camera traps, the researchers have penetrated deeper than ever before into the species’ unseen world.

In 2011, the first video footage ever of a golden cat in its natural habitat was shot in Gabon by Bahaa-el-din. “I opened one video file after another featuring a golden cat! I watched them all through once, and then again, and then again. I felt, at last, like I was getting to know this elusive cat,” she told mongabay.com in an interview shortly after the video was captured. “I was torn between wanting to preserve the mysteriousness of the cat by keeping the footage secret, and wanting to show the world this beautiful cat to raise its profile and keep it from disappearing without anybody taking notice. Of course the latter was the sensible option.”

Golden cat leaping past a camera trap, showing off its decorative underbelly. Photo credit: David Mills / Panthera

Researchers on the trail of the golden cat typically trek around 20 kilometers (more than 12 miles) per day to remote camera trap locations and confront dangers along the way ranging from hidden stake-lined hunting pits, armed poachers and territorial elephants. In Kibale, elephants are the main worry: “We don’t have many buffalo or armed poachers. We just have elephants… we were unable to access cameras for several weeks because of the elephants’ tendency to find an area they liked and hang out there,” recalled Mills.

It was Bahaa-el-din, Mills and their team – working with cat conservation organization Panthera – that reassessed the golden cat’s IUCN classification, raising it from Near Threatened to Vulnerable this year.

Dwindling Forest

The golden cat is primarily a forest dweller, so its fate is tied to the fate of its habitat. Mills says that the species is “forest obligate”, making deforestation the main threat to its survival. “While they can even thrive under low to moderate logging, probably due to increased rodent populations… they do not seem to venture where forest is absent as do their closest relatives, caracals and servals.”

All across equatorial Africa, native forest is giving way to agricultural land. A frenzy of palm oil production – for use in everything from lipstick to instant noodles – is driving that deforestation. As demand for cheap palm oil rockets in Europe and the U.S., manufacturers seek to bring its production closer to home to reduce their costs. Africa is prime ground.

Back in 2005, researchers determined that 44 percent of the animal’s habitat had already been lost, particularly in western Africa where deforestation was rampant. A report by Grain found that over the last 15 years, 60 deals were made by foreign companies to convert 4 million hectares (15,444 square miles) of forest in central and western Africa into palm oil plantations. Many of those deals shrank golden cat habitat.

In the Kibale region of Uganda, the golden cats face threats duplicated to varying degrees across their territory. As human population rises, so do the demands on natural resources, and conflict with conservation ideals occur. “People are trying to live traditionally, and therefore to cook with wood [so] they have cut down all of the trees on their land,” said Mills. He points to the “insidious erosion” of rainforest by “those who want to profit from a resource that costs them nothing to maintain” a particularly acute problem in Kibale and throughout Uganda.

Caught in the snare

With its forest home fast dwindling, the golden cat is increasingly coming in contact with human beings, or more precisely with their hunting methods.

The consumption of golden cats is not thought to be a major driving force in their decline, nor is the illegal trade in skins or cat parts. Rather, many golden cats are ensnared by accident. Some may use the golden cat as a food source, but not around Kibale. “When you cross the Rwenzoris, the mountain range dividing Uganda from the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], people ‘eat everything’ as my Ugandan field assistant puts it,” said Mills.

Hunting is driven by the bushmeat trade, which provides an important food source and income to many across the golden cat’s range. Even in the Congo Basin, considered a stronghold for the species due to its remoteness, 64 percent of forest cover is within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of a road.

African golden cat with a snare wound around its lower stomach. Many cats are not so lucky to escape. Photo credit: David Mills/ Panthera

Bahaa-el-din suggests unsustainable localised hunting presents one of the greatest dangers to the cat’s survival. “Golden cats fall to snares frequently, and in areas of intensive hunting, there are no more golden cats,” she told mongabay.com. The use of wire snares is a particularly acute problem; although they are meant for duikers or servals, they often indiscriminately catch animals of a similar size. “I have heard very little about people deliberately setting out to kill golden cats… hunters set wire snares to catch a range of species and golden cats frequently get trapped in these snares.”

There have been documented cases of researchers finding cat pelts in traditional markets, but not in significant quantities to conclude that trafficking, domestic or international, is a significant threat. “They probably stay in local markets,” Mills said.

A future for the golden cat?

The focus of conservation research and spending remains with the larger African species – with lions, leopards and cheetahs. Whether the future will see a growing interest in, and funding for, their small feline cousin remains to be seen.

The allure of charismatic big cats, coupled with a lack of knowledge regarding the golden cat, has relegated it to a secondary conservation position. Those priorities should be reversed on the ground, said Mills. “While charismatic megafauna often generate great responses internationally… on the local level, they are often the primary source of human-wildlife conflict, and generate outright hatred” in local communities. He suggests that greater conservation gains could be made by focussing local efforts instead on “less contentious” species such as the golden cat, and educating local people about the benefits of such species.

“[S]mall carnivores may help in things like rat (and disease) control, even when they do take the occasional chicken,” said Mills. “People tend to focus their dislike on the primary sources of human-wildlife conflict, and they are often not antagonistic about golden cats, even though some will say they have lost a goat or two to them in the past. ”

Organizations such as Panthera, who have funded much of Mills and Bahaa-el-din’s research, seek to conserve cat species by focussing on habitat conservation. But at present, there is no direct conservation program for the species. With funds for conservation projects now dwindling, lesser known species such as the golden cat stand to lose out. Mills does believe the changing of the animal’s IUCN status will bring improved funding opportunities.

Planned developments across the golden cat’s range present major obstacles to conservation, according to Mills. “Plans to expand mining operations, particularly in DRC, also expose a high percentage of protected areas to employees of those mines, who are likely to engage in hunting on the side.” Further study will enable researchers to understand how cat populations will be affected.

Bahaa-el-din believes there must be more action to improve accountability for companies exploiting the rainforest habitat that gives life to the golden cat and so many other species. A lack of transparency has allowed environmentally destructive companies to escape unpunished, she said. “We need to change that. Companies, governments, corrupt officials – they all need to know that we’re watching, and that there are consequences to destroying the environment for a quick buck.”

After three years of studying the African Golden Cat, Laila Bahaa-el-din finally came face to face with one. Photo Credit: Laila Bahaa-el-din/ Panthera

The researchers stress the importance of conserving the golden cat because it is a “niche” species, often the top predator in its habitat, the removal of which could have drastic consequences for entire ecosystems. “[C]onserving golden cats not only has the indirect impact of maintaining a functioning food web, but also has direct benefits to the ecosystem… [as it] involves protecting the forest and the cat’s prey,” Bahaa-el-din concluded.

If this beautiful creature is to survive, we not only need to learn more about its way of life in the forest. We must also remember that it’s there, out of sight and elusive as ever: exactly where it belongs.

 

Citations

Bahaa-el-din, L. Henschel, P. Butyinski, T M. Macdonald, D W. Mills, D. Slotow, R & Hunter, L. (2015) The African golden cat. Caracal aurata: Africa’s least-known felid. Mammal Review. 63-77

Bahaa-el-din, L., Mills, D., Hunter, L. & Henschel, P. (in Prep). Caracal aurata. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. http://www.iucnredlist.org