Project Puma: How Cougars are Better for our Health

How can a wild animal like a mountain lion be better for our health? We have all heard about the web of life, how all things are connected, and that there is a natural balance within an ecosystem. Pumas show us how removing part of that system shifts that balance and creates a system that is more detrimental to us people.

Let’s first look at the web of life that a puma lives in:

The web of life for a Puma (very simplified)

The web of life for a Puma (very simplified)

In this very simplified (though accurate) system, pumas feed primarily on deer, which in turn feed on grass. Besides mountain lions, deer only have humans as predators (and sometimes the odd coyote), but are parasitised by lots of organisms including ticks. The mountain lions keep deer numbers in check, which in turn keeps tick numbers in check, as does it keep grass from being under-abundant. (If you are a school teacher and would like to incorporate this concept into your curriculum, contact Felidae Conservation Fund for their CAT Aware Program).

Let’s look at this same system on the east coast of the United States, where Cougars are no longer found.

Web of life without the Puma

Web of life without the Puma

Without the pumas, deer numbers have grown tremendously, these animals in turn feed on the local vegetation, which leads to overgrazing since their numbers are too large. More importantly for us people, because there are more deer, there are more ticks that feed on those deer.

This is where the health aspect comes in. Ticks carry disease, including Lyme disease. With more ticks present, there may not be a larger percentage of ticks that carry Lyme disease but there will be a larger number of individuals that are vectors of it. Due to the fact that cougars are not controlling deer numbers on the east coast, more Lyme disease carrying ticks are around, which leads to a higher rate of incidence for the disease in the area.

Let me illustrate the point with some maps.

Tick species ranges that carry Lyme disease in the US

Tick species ranges that carry Lyme disease in the US

In the US, both the Black-legged Tick (Ixodes scapularis)  and the Western Black-legged Tick (Ixodes pacificus) carry and transmit Lyme disease.

This is the area in which Lyme disease has the highest incidence rate (or, where it happens the most):

The fifteen states with the highest incidence rate of Lyme disease in the US

The fifteen states with the highest incidence rate of Lyme disease in the US (see Lyme Disease Association Analysis) — the darker the red the higher the number of incidences

As you can clearly see, the highest chance of infection is limited to the east Coast.

Now let’s look where Pumas currently live in accordance with the above data:

Mountain Lion presence and their relation to Lyme disease infection

Mountain Lion presence and their relation to Lyme disease infection

Even though Lyme disease and their vectors are present on the west coast of the US, mountain lions keep the tick numbers low (by keeping the deer numbers lower), therefore creating an overall healthier system for people. More mountain lions eventually means a lower chance of getting Lyme disease.

Historically, cougars used to occupy the east coast where Lyme disease is so prevalent now, but they were extirpated from the region in the early 1900′s. Could a case be made for re-introducing cougars to the east coast, now that they have been gone from the region for hundreds of years? Is there even space for them? Even though the western United States has greater areas of fully protected land, the eastern states still have plenty of habitat for pumas as well.

US population density - Copyright Ian Offord

US population density – Copyright Ian Offord

The population density map shows that cougars have no space left on the eastern coast, nor would you want them to wander into New York City or Boston, but once you are more inland, the population density is low enough where you can have successful co-existence between these cats and people. Having an action plan would help of course but even naturally, pumas are moving more and more east as time passes. Maybe sooner than later, Lyme disease will be less of an issue in the States, and all due to a wild cat.

 

Atlantic Puffins of Skomer Island

The largest breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) south of Scotland is on Skomer Island, on the western coast of Wales. Over 10,000 pairs breed in underground burrows here. Sometimes they burrow the holes they lay their eggs in themselves, sometimes they simply kick out the rabbit that was using it before (considering the size difference, that is an amazing feat). All of the burrows are close to the coastal cliffs. This means they can take flight easily if danger approaches (in the form of Peregrine Falcons) and there isn’t much time for gulls to steal the catch the puffins are bringing back to their chicks between landing and disappearing underground.

The Breeding Colony:

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) group at coastal breeding colony, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) group at coastal breeding colony, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Puffins at their Burrows:

IMG_117237_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at nest burrow at sunrise, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

IMG_116900_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at nest burrow, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

IMG_116908_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at nest burrow, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

To collect food for their one chick (also called a pufflling), they forage in relatively close waters (most within 7km from this colony) by diving underwater and catching small fish. They collect multiple fish at one time by pressing the caught ones to their upper mandible with their tongue (amazing or what!?!). Eleven species of fish are common prey (mostly sandeels), but up to twenty four different species of fish have been recorded to be used as food by these guys.

IMG_117288_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) carrying fish prey, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

When on land without fish, they engage in a few different behaviors.

Like many other birds, a male and female pair bond by touching their bills together in a behavior called billing.

IMG_117517_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) pair billing, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Flapping their wings is also quite easily seen. Ornithologists interpret this as both a comfort and/or displacement behavior.

IMG_117154_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) flapping wings, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

When you are this cute, it’s understandable when one needs a rest.

IMG_117203_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) resting, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Towards the late evening, you may start seeing individuals head-flicking, which is a way to communicate between individuals and may partially serve to synchronize the departure from the colony.

IMG_117213_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) head-flicking, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

The amazing thing about this particular colony is that the puffins let you get extremely close, often even running right by your feet. Scientists on the island are currently figuring out if our human presence is having a negative impact on the Puffins. Instinctively, I would wager that to be the case but I talked to one scientist who said it may be balanced by the fact that our presence often dissuades the gulls from coming in and stealing the puffins caught fish. I sure hope that’s the case and I am interested to hear the final results of that study. At the very least, it allows for amazing portrait opportunities.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in breeding plumage, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in breeding plumage, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at sunrise, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at sunrise, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

I really didn’t feel like I had enough time to hang out with these amazing creatures and only tried for a few minutes to get a flight shot.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) flying, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) flying, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

or a on the water shot for that matter.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) on water, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) on water, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

If you want to see more Puffin pictures from the trip, click here, if you want a free desktop wallpaper, check out this blog post.

Free Nature Wallpaper for Download – Atlantic Puffin

Aren’t Atlantic Puffins just the cutest? These amazing seabirds are the penguins of the north, at least that’s what they remind me of. Like most seabirds, they really only come ashore to breed. This individual was photographed on Skomer Island in Wales. The Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) build their burrows into the soft earth between the flowers, to which they return to feed their chicks or to roost at night.

As always, just click on the image for the wallpaper sized image or use this link Atlantic Puffin.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in breeding plumage, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in breeding plumage, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Most Endangered Cats in the World

Being cat obsessed, I always want to find out more about these amazing animals. So recently I was searching for the most endangered felines in the world. I ended up finding conflicting results (I think this is partially due to the fact that listing certain species is ‘sexier’ than others and that some addressed subspecies while others did not). So I decided to do my own research. It took some time, looking up every subspecies of wild cat, but it was well worth it.  And now, in honor of Endangered Species Day, which was this last Friday I decided to put together a list of the ten most endangered felines in the world. Now a list depends on the parameters set and since the exact numbers of breeding individuals for many subspecies or even species is not known, I will deal only with the numbers that are known.

This is the overall list of the most endangered wild cats in the world, including subspecies and species.

1. South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis)

South China Tiger Silhouette
Status: Critically Endangered, most likely Extinct in the Wild
Population Size: 72* (Captive Only)
Population Trend: Unknown


2. Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)

Amur Leopard Silhouette

Status: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 50
Population Trend: Decreasing


3. Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus)Asiatic Cheetah Silhouette Status: Critically Endangered
Population Size: 50-100
Population Trend: Decreasing


4. Balkan Lynx (Lynx lynx martinoi)

Balkan Lynx SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: ~ 80-105
Population Trend: Decreasing


5. Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus)

Iberian Lynx SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: ~ 84-143
Population Trend: Decreasing


6. Iriomote Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis)Iriomate Cat SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: ~ 100
Population Trend: Decreasing


7. Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr)

Arabian Leopard SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 200
Population Trend: Decreasing


8. Javan Leopard (Panthera pardus melas)

Javan Leopard SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing


9. Barbary Serval (Leptailurus serval constantinus)Barbary Serval SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing


10. Northwest African Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki)

Northwest African CheetahStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing


There are a few really interesting things to note when looking at this list. One thing for example is that all of these subspecies and species’ population numbers are decreasing (except of course the South China Tiger since there is no more wild population), and maybe a case could be made for the Amur Leopard, whose numbers have been increasing slightly as of late. This downward trend is really not a great sign for the survival of these cats in the long run. In fact at the species level the only felid that is increasing in population is the domestic cat!

Another interesting thing is that six out of the ten cats are larger cats (though not all of them are classified as Big Cats). Larger animals require larger areas to contain enough prey to sustain themselves. As their habitat is constantly disappearing so do their numbers decrease. The only plus side of this is that if we can protect these large cats, so do we protect lots of habitat not only for them but many other animals as well.

Another thing to note is that only one species (not subspecies) has made the list, the Iberian Lynx. It proves how threatened of extinction this animal really is. Some tiger and lion subspecies have gone extinct due to humans in recent times, but if the Iberian Lynx was to disappear for good, it would be the first cat species to go extinct since the Saber-toothed Cat, which died out 11,000 years ago.

Finally, another great thing in creating this list was to discover the Balkan Lynx, a subspecies of Eurasian Lynx I had never heard of! I always enjoy learning more so if there are topics about wild cats that you would like to hear about, let me know in the comments!

Project Puma: Depredation Numbers in California and Possible Conclusions

On June 5th, 1990 California voters passed Proposition 117, enacting the California Wildlife Protection Act which designated the Mountain Lion a Specifically Protected Mammal in the state. This subsequently made it unlawful to take, possess, transport, import or sell any mountain lion or part or product thereof. Hurray for the mountain lion! (How are we the only state to have passed such a bill still bewilders me). So with this act being in place how do we still hear about cougars being killed in people’s backyards or when an animal ventures to close to a neighborhood? The answer is simple, the act allows certain departments (like the police) to kill any puma that is perceived to be an imminent threat to public health or safety. The mountain lions killed by people in California you hear way less about are the ones shot since they are perceived to be a threat to livestock or are believed to have killed or injured livestock previously. When this situation arises, the livestock owner has to apply for a depredation permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Once they acknowledge the damage was indeed done by a mountain lion they issue a permit to take that lion out (aka kill it). The department has been keeping track of the number of permits issued and the number of animals subsequently taken with those permits since 1972. The numbers are quite interesting, and so is a drawn up California map from those numbers.

Number of legally killed Mountain Lions per California County from 1972 to 2013

Number of legally killed Mountain Lions per California County from 1972 to 2013

So what do these numbers actually tell us? I am no statistician but I think we can draw a few conclusions from this when looking at the above map and comparing that to the Mountain Lions range in California (see below).

Mountain Lion Habitat in California. Source: Nature Mapping

Mountain Lion Habitat in California. Source: Nature Mapping

The obvious conclusion is that mountain lions are only taken where they are actually able to occur (for example no mountain lion has been killed in San Francisco county since 1972 because there is no habitat for them there), what may be more interesting is to look at the possible habitat and then see where the most depredation takes place. Assuming that a mountain lion would attack livestock with the same likelihood no matter what kind of other external pressures its faced with (though this is of course impossible), you would conclude from the map that there are simply more mountain lions in the northern part of California, in the Big Sur area, and along the western part of the Sierras. This especially makes sense when you look at counties like San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara. All three counties are considered being mountain lion habitat, yet the depredation permit numbers are not very high. Is this because all three counties are heavily populated and there are simply less lions there than say Mendocino County? Is it because there is less livestock in these areas? What conclusions do you draw from this? Can we say that this means that counties like Siskyou or Shasta have the highest population numbers of pumas for California?

Another interesting thing to look at is number of animals actually killed compared to permits issued. I drew up another map to look at this comparison.

Percentage of Mountain Lions taken in comparison to depredation permits issued per  California County from 1972 to 2013

Percentage of Mountain Lions taken in comparison to depredation permits issued per
California County from 1972 to 2013

This map shows that no matter what county a permit is issued in, on average, about half of the issued permits result in a dead lion. Interestingly Siskyou county again is on the higher end of the scale with 66% of permits resulting in a dead lion. For there to be a dead lion, there needs to be a live lion in the first place, with that I simply want to say that it again seems to show that the northern counties in California may boast the highest mountain lion numbers. Livestock predation would most likely be caused by transient animals, individuals that have only recently become independent from their mother and that are desperately looking for food, or older individuals which have difficulty hunting wild game. With such high numbers of animals being killed in these northern counties, it seems that the overall adult breeding population is doing better there than the more central and southern parts of the state.

Finally we can take a look at the change in number of animals legally taken over the 41 years of records.

Pumas Legally Killed in California from 1972-2013

Pumas Legally Killed in California from 1972-2013

What’s interesting here is to see how drastically the number of animals killed increased from 1972 until 2000, with the 1990 ban not seeming to have an impact on the trend. This could partially be because the number of animals actually increased and therefore there was a higher chance of there being conflict with livestock, or that the ban had no impact what so ever. The other interesting thing is that there has been a tremendous decrease in the number of animals killed since 2007. Is this because pumas are avoiding livestock or simply because there are less of them? It seems to be somewhat stable now, which may imply that the overall California population may be stable as well.

Since we don’t have numbers for the actual population size of mountain lions in California, nor do we have numbers for areas with the highest population sizes, these depredation numbers may give us the best idea of whats going on with the population overall.

Sources:
Department of Fish and Wildlife – County Mountain Lion Depredation Annual Statistics – http://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/lion/dep-statistics.html

Free Nature Wallpaper for Download – Fruit Bat

I feel like bats tend to get a bad reputation. Most of that I think is because they are different and we don’t understand them. Mammals that fly, often using echolocation, and hanging upside down when sleeping. I took this picture because this Lesser Short-nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus brachyotis) is so cute. Hopefully with pictures like this one, people will start to change their mind about these amazing animals.

As always, just click on the image for the wallpaper sized image or use this link Lesser Short-nosed Fruit.

Lesser Short-nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus brachyotis) roosting, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Lesser Short-nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus brachyotis) roosting, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Blackfish: Watch and Believe It

Blackfish Movie Poster

My sister pointed out the movie Blackfish to me recently. I have no idea why I had not heard of it before but I am so glad I know about it now. And so should you. This documentary talks about Orcas (Orcinus orca) and how cruel it is to keep them in captivity. Now, you may feel compelled to stop reading here as you may be thinking to yourself, not another story about the cruelty of animals in captivity. Well here is why you should listen.

Orcas are incredibly social animals. They grow up in family pods. Now imagine being kidnapped (let’s face it, that’s what it is) away from your family and being thrown into a small concrete pool with four others of “your kind” — to be explained further later — and be expected to get along. Fights and altercations are common among captive Orcas, and it is understandable, these particular individuals would never be together in the wild, so why would they get along when they are forced to be together in captivity. In a recent BBC article about Orcas, I read that scientists have discovered that the species we call Orca is made up of at least ten different ecotypes (Orca populations that hunt in very different and specific ways) of which four are genetically distinct and all of them have not interbred for over 200,000 years (that’s longer than humans have been around). This basically translates to there being more than one species of Orca. Now in captivity, Orcas from both the Atlantic and the Pacific share enclosures (and are artificially bred together). It makes total sense to me that these incredibly smart animals have a reason not to get along. Of course that doesn’t matter to us people as long as they perform their show duties….

Dolphins, of which Orcas are the biggest member, are incredibly emotional animals. In fact, the parts of the brain responsible for emotions is much larger in them, than us humans, meaning dolphins have a greater ability to feel emotion than us. (You can read one writer’s views on the dolphin brain and how it relates to captivity here). Now imagine that you are back in your concrete enclosure, starving because you have not gotten food (tricks are encouraged through food deprivation), are forced to live with others you don’t get along with, and have the emotional wherewithal to feel everything. Orcas lashing out at their human trainers, though of course awful in all aspects, is understandable. I do believe that these marine mammals know what they are doing and if they are attacking the trainer, they are doing so by choice. Now one thing I would like to stress is that it does appear that the trainers care more about the animals and their well being than anyone else and this is by no way an attack on them. The film maker, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, agrees (you can watch an interview with Gabriela here).

So, how can we prevent these magnificent animals from being in captivity in the future? The answer is very simply, don’t go to the parks that keep Orcas in captivity! There are a few points that are important to make. The animals currently in captivity can probably not be freed — growing up in their concrete environment, especially without a true family pod, would probably not survive in the wild. These animals should be cared for until their deaths, but the breeding program employed at the parks should be completely halted. If you don’t spend your money at the park, they will have to realize that there is no long term future for them and their Orca shows.

Now, I know that me telling you not to go to a park is not really fair. I am telling you to not do something but I am also not giving you a solution. Well, here is the solution. Let’s say you are in San Diego and you were thinking of attending the park with your family but feel ethically weird about it. What else could you do? Did you know San Diego has some of the best wild dolphin and whale watching in the world! And guess what, its cheaper than going to the park — check out San Diego Whale Watching. San Antonio has great birdwatching. Check out the local Audubon society’s website. For Orlando, there is great birdwatching at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Do you have a wildlife activity you would recommend somewhere near the parks? If so let us know!

If you do visit a park housing Orcas and other dolphins, please take a moment to closely observe their behavior and you will see that they are not normal and often show signs of mental problems. These animals simply do not belong in captivity. I hope you agree.

Update: California Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced a new bill, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB 2140) that would ban the captivity of Orcas for entertainment of performance purposes. If you feel as strongly about this matter as I do, please sign the bill here.

 

Project: Bornean Bay Cat

Screenshot of Bay Cat story of LIveScience

Screenshot of Bay Cat story on LiveScience

Some of you may have read the Live Science article about the Bay Cat photo that was published last week. If not, you can check it out here. I am really excited that the photograph was published by a media outlet with such a large readership (it even made the front page of yahoo!!) — but  even more importantly, I am ecstatic because the Bay Cat is getting more attention. As an endangered feline it needs all the help it can get.

To elaborate on the article – they have word limits, I do not :), I wanted to discuss the tremendous importance of working with the biologists studying this wild cat to make a photograph of this incredibly elusive feline.

But first some background…

As always before an assignment, I read as much about the Bay Cat well in advance before I went into the field. This information allows me to put myself in a better position to either encounter the animal or place the camera traps in the right locations.

As soon as I started reading about this cat, I knew that getting a photograph of it was going to be tough. There was so little known about it. In fact, by 2004 only 12 specimens had ever been found, and direct sightings (known to the outside world) could be counted on one hand. Nothing, besides educated guesses, is known about their predation, social organization, reproduction, and development.

And this isn’t even the case just on a global level, but even on Borneo, which the Bay Cat is endemic to (only found there). Less than 30 percent of people that live in the rainforest who were interviewed in a study could identify the Bay Cat.

The percentage of people able to name the species of Borneo's wild cat - Copyright and All Permission belong to Andrew Hearn

The percentage of people able to name the species of Borneo’s wild cat (Ross et al. 2010)

I left for Sabah, the most northern Malaysian state in Borneo, in February with high hopes and expectations (what can I say, being naive and optimistic is just the way I am). I would have five weeks to get the first ever high resolution picture of a wild Bay Cat. Luckily for me, I would not have to go at this endeavor alone, nor would I have ever had any chance of success without the help of Andrew Hearn and his team. Andy is the expert on felids in Borneo. He knows everything there is to know about the five species of cats found on the island. In fact, most of the stuff I had read about the species was written by Andy. He has been doing his PhD research on the wild cats here for the last seven years and has seen all of them in person. Like I said, Andy is THE expert.

Bay Cat (Pardofelis badia) researcher Andrew Hearn checking camera trap, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Bay Cat (Pardofelis badia) researcher Andrew Hearn checking camera trap, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Andy had gotten one or two pictures of the Bay Cat in some of his previous research sites, but none of the cats ever showed up at the same camera set twice. There seemed to be no predictable behavior for this animal. Not a good thing when you only have four digital SLR camera traps and a huge rainforest to put them in. Then, the luck seemed to change our way, at Andy’s latest research site he had gotten four pictures of the same cat at the same camera location. We knew where we had to place our cameras.

Two of them went right along the cats travel path, another 60 feet down the trail and another near a nice buttress root — I figured we may as well go for a pretty picture :)

After three weeks we checked the cameras. Besides finding the cameras covered with mold (due to the extreme humidity) there were no cats on the cameras. A very disappointing start, but at least we had gotten a few pictures of the Malay Civet (Viverra tangalunga).

Malayan Civet (Viverra tangalunga) in lowland rainforest at night, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Malayan Civet (Viverra tangalunga) in lowland rainforest at night, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

My confidence diminished, my optimism grew slim. A nice punch in the face came when Andy pulled the pictures of this research cameras, next to my SLR camera traps, showing how the Bay Cat had used a different trail this time walking right by my set-up, but also avoiding the camera further down the trail.

    Bay Cat (Pardofelis badia) walking by SLR camera trap set up and trail camera, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia - Copyright and All Permissions belong to Andrew Hearn

Bay Cat (Pardofelis badia) walking by SLR camera trap set up and trail camera, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia – Copyright and All Permissions belong to Andrew Hearn

I could hear myself saying “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it”. This wasn’t the time to give up. We had the cameras in great locations, we just had to hope the cat would return before I had to leave.

Five weeks had almost passed and I was leaving in a few days. We hiked up the hill to check and pack up the cameras. Still, no Bay Cat, but at least we were able to get photographs of both the Marbled Cat and Sunda Clouded Leopard.

Marbled Cat (Pardofelis marmorata marmorata) in lowland rainforest, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Marbled Cat (Pardofelis marmorata marmorata) in lowland rainforest, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Bornean Clouded Leopard (Neofelis diardi borneensis) male in lowland rainforest at night, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Bornean Clouded Leopard (Neofelis diardi borneensis) male in lowland rainforest at night, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

I returned home excited for having pictures of these species but also disappointed for not having gotten a picture of the Bay Cat. I felt like the ship had sailed on that opportunity. Little did I know that I would return to Borneo to work with Andy once again a few months later. Returning in November we once again placed the cameras in or near areas where Andy had gotten a Bay Cat photograph before using his research trail cameras. This had to be the time, it just had to.

Again things proved difficult. The rain was unrelenting making set-up quit difficult. “Just got to get one with it” is something Andy would always say when he encountered a difficult situation and I admire that about him, but it is also something I have tried taking to heart for myself. Even with the rains, difficult terrain, fire ants, leeches, horse flies, we just had to get one with it. Finally, after six days, all the cameras were in place.

Then, Andy and Gilmore Bolongon (Andy’s former research assistant and now a masters student) had to return to their principal research location on the Kinabatanagan River. I would meet up with them in ten days, right after doing the first camera check.

Arriving at the first camera after an exhausting first part of the hike I was hopeful, yet cautious. Scrolling through the pictures, reality struck, no Bay Cat picture.

Two more cameras await three more miles up the mountain. Not knowing what pictures await me up there is both a driving force, and a barrier. It would almost be easier not knowing if there was a Bay Cat picture, then knowing for sure that there were none. I am way too curious of a person not to know, so I kept hiking.

I arrived at the second camera, only feet from the third camera. Again, no Bay Cat picture.

The third camera didn’t hold much promise due to its proximity with the unsuccessful second camera trap. It was located on a very faint game trail off of the main trail. My hopes were low. The scream I let out once I saw what was on it must have scared all the animals away in a two mile radius. If that didn’t do it, the dance I did after that would have. I was exhilarated. As soon as I could, I let Andy and Gil know. This Bay Cat picture exists because of the teamwork between all three of us.

Bay Cat (Pardofelis badia) gray morph male in lowland rainforest, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Bay Cat (Pardofelis badia) gray morph male in lowland rainforest, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Andy has eighty camera set-ups in this research site (160 in total, but there are always two per site to get both sides of the animal). Without them we would have had no clue where a good spot would have been to get the high-resolution picture. Even more importantly, with all of Andy’s research there will finally be some light shed on the biology of the wild cats here.

His research is looking at population size, density, habitat preference, habitat use, and prey base. With this information, it will be possible to draw up a conservation plan to protect this endangered species, as well as the other felids on Borneo. You can read more about his incredibly important (and fascinating might I say!!!) research here: http://borneanwildcat.blogspot.com/

Panthera, the world’s leading cat conservation organization, is partially funding Andy’s research. By donating to them you are directly helping them implement steps into conserving our wild feline friends. If you have a chance visit their webpage.

 

References:

Hearn, A., Sanderson, J., Ross, J., Wilting, A. & Sunarto, S. 2008b. Pardofelis badia. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.1. <www.iucnredlist.org>.
Ross et al 2010. Framework for Bornean wild cat action plan
Sunquist, M., Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild cats of the World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 48–51

 

Free Nature Wallpaper for Download – Borneo Pygmy Elephants

This Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) mother and calf were grazing along the Kinabatangan River in the state of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. The rainforest corridor is quite narrow along the river here and these elephants routinely push into Oil Palm plantations but on this day, the whole herd was feeding right along the river. I was accompanying researchers as they were checking their live traps when we came upon them. Even they, who spend every day on the river, where exhilarated to see them. We spent three hours watching these guys and it never got boring. I never had the chance to see them the last time I was in Borneo so getting to observe them this time was a real treat.

As always, just click on the image for the wallpaper sized image or use this link Borneo Pygmy Elephant Mother and Calf.

Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) mother and calf, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) mother and calf, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia

Project: African Leopards in Gabon

Getting a picture of an African Leopard in Gabon is not the same as anywhere else on the African continent. Unlike South Africa or Kenya, in Gabon you can’t sit in a safari vehicle with your guide and hope it shows up from the brush. This is the rainforest (think super dense 7 foot understory plants that make it impossible to see anything, times ten) and finding a leopard is nearly impossible. The biologists studying these cats deal with it on a daily basis. Phillip Henschel and Laila Bahaa-el-din brave, and I mean brave (to be explained soon) these challenges.

Does this look dense enough?

Tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

How about now?

Tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

We are in Lope National Park in Gabon where Laila has been conducting her research for the past three months. Phil was nice enough to pick me up from the airport and bring me here along with all of the equipment. Being in their company makes me feel confident that we will get a picture of the big cat, these two know what they are talking about.

On the first evening, we do a quick drive around in the savanna habitat bordering the rainforest. This isn’t Phil or Laila’s first time to the rodeo and it doesn’t take long before they spot Leopard tracks along the road.

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) tracks on dirt road next to tire marks, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) tracks on dirt road next to tire marks, Lope National Park, Gabon

My confidence grows, later that night they show me video footage they got with trail cameras that show leopards along river banks. Even more reason to think that this may be possible.

The next day, we load up the backpacks with two digital SLR camera traps and head into the forest. The first sign that this wasn’t going to be easy was when we stopped at the forest edge to listen for African Forest Elephants. If these guys see, smell, or feel you (through vibrations in the ground), make sure you have your running shoes on — they will charge you. They are not the bluff charging kind either; instead they are the full barreling through the rainforest until you are way gone or beneath their feet kind. An encouraging thought. While we take our first steps I wonder how Phil and Laila are staying so calm with this constant threat looming, but somehow they continue on.

We first check one of Laila’s camera traps, deployed along a path.

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) biologist Laila Bahaa-el-din reviewing camera trap images on computer while Arthur Dibambo attaches camera trap to tree, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) biologist Laila Bahaa-el-din reviewing camera trap images on computer while Arthur Dibambo attaches camera trap to tree, Lope National Park, Gabon

No cats came up on the computer screen. It’s time to move on. We drop into a creek bed. After walking for a bit we notice a ton of leopard prints in the soft sand. A very good sign. We had previously decided to put the camera on a log spanning across the river (due to the cats wanting to avoid the water if at all possible) so we start looking for a suitable log. After a few hundred meters we find the perfect one. Not only are there foot prints all around it, there are scratch marks on it. Phil, also a master tracker, assures me its a leopard marking site. This means its quite likely for the animal to return to this exact spot, so we don’t waste any time and set up the first camera. Another hundred meters and we find another log, this one with some leopard scat on it (which Phil immediately smells, measures, and photographs….crazy Phil), and we place the second camera on that bridge.

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) biologist Phillip Henschel measuring leopard scat diameter, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) biologist Phillip Henschel measuring leopard scat diameter, Lope National Park, Gabon

In the next two days we place cameras along trails that have had leopards come by in the past (based on Laila’s camera trapping efforts). I was already dreaming of cat pictures galore.

Reality hit when we checked four of the cameras after ten days. No cats on any of them, instead other mammals visited (some of them making us people seem frighteningly very very small).

Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) mother and baby in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) mother and baby in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Ogilby's Duiker (Cephalophus ogilbyi) in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Ogilby’s Duiker (Cephalophus ogilbyi) in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

Black-legged Mongoose (Bdeogale nigripes) crossing over log bridge at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

Black-legged Mongoose (Bdeogale nigripes) crossing over log bridge at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) bull in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) bull in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

There were only three weeks left, I was starting to get really nervous about whether or not we would get a feline on one of the cameras. It was time to check the two log cameras, we get to the first camera and bam!!! Right off the bat there is a leopard picture, then another, and another.

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) female, with Fire Ant (Solenopsis sp) damaged eyes, crossing log bridge over river at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) female, with Fire Ant (Solenopsis sp) damaged eyes, crossing log bridge over river at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male crossing log bridge over river at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male crossing log bridge over river at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

There are a couple of interesting things to note about the leopards in these pictures. One you can clearly see the size difference between the female and the male. Two, their eyes are not cloudy due to the flashes (which I always position so that the eyes look good), instead the clouding of the cornea, also called keratopathy, which leads to partial blindness is caused by Fire Ants that have stung the leopards in the eyes (which must be incredibly painful, if you have ever felt a fire ant bite). Luckily, both leopards look to be in good physical condition, apparently not completely hampered by their partially lost vision.

On to the second bridge. Another leopard photo, one that made me back away from the camera as I was reviewing the images. The leopard seemed to be coming right out of the camera.

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male, with Fire Ant (Solenopsis sp) damaged eyes, crossing log bridge at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male, with Fire Ant (Solenopsis sp) damaged eyes, crossing log bridge at night, Lope National Park, Gabon

The picture has a weird look to it, the leopard almost doesn’t look real due to the cloudy eyes. To me though, as the leopard is also covered with engorged ticks, it exemplifies what a tough world these guys live in. Constantly having to deal with ectoparasites (I don’t even want to imagine what parasites they have going on inside them) just can’t be fun.

After seeing the pictures, I was of course elated, jumping up and down, and simply being extremely excited. I could not have asked for more, or so I thought, until this image showed up two weeks later:

African Leopard (Panthera pardus) male crossing log bridge over river in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) male crossing log bridge over river in tropical rainforest, Lope National Park, Gabon

It’s possibly one of my favorite camera trap images because of the lighting, composition, the habitat you see in the background, and the way the tail swirls around.

A picture like this is not just a set it up and get it kind of situation. Instead it is a culmination of a lot of factors. Building and getting the cameras into a country takes a lot of time, coordination, patience, bureaucratic paperwork, persistence, and sometimes just luck. Then comes the ecological research on the species. How does the animal move about its habitat? How many individuals occupy a certain area? Will more than one cat use the same path? What direction is the cat most likely to move in? I read everything and anything I can about a species before I try and photograph it. Then, and more importantly, only through months and months (if not years) of field experience by the researchers can these questions be answered. After figuring out the location for the camera, it’s time to decide where to set it up, how to set the exposure, and finally (and crucially) where and how to set the flashes. It’s not easy by any means, but every time I get a picture like the one above, I know its worth it.

As is obvious, these pictures were only possible due to Laila and Phil, so thank you guys, it was a true pleasure working together! Being able to call you my friends is something I cherish and I look forward to seeing both of you again sooner rather than later!