Cat in Thin Air project launched!

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The Andean Mountain Cat has been in my heart for a very long time. It is a high altitude specialist and less than 2.500 remain. This is not another sad depressing environmental story however. The Andean Cat has a real chance at survival, but its up to us who care to make sure that happens. The Andean Cat Alliance has been working exclusively on this amazing species since 1999, and they have made real progress. Since however there are less than 10 high resolution pictures of this cat in existence, I want to do my part in helping the Andean Cat by getting more high resolution pictures which can then be used to introduce a ton more people to the cat.

And so, the Cat in Thin Air Project was born. The goals of the project are to first get more pictures of this very elusive cat, but then, and much more importantly help with established education programs as well as create additional avenues to show the cat to the world. Have an interest in wild cats, go check out the project page, want to help? Email me!

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!! 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.

I do want 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 before I went into the field. The research 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.

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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 on 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 on 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 the camera 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

Endemic Birds of New Zealand

They call it the land of the birds, and why not, with over 170 species of birds, of which over 80% are endemic (only found there) to New Zealand, you can understand why. Plus, there are only two native mammal species on the islands, also of the flying variety ( the New Zealand Long-tailed Bat, and the New Zealand Lesser Short-tailed Bat).

Since New Zealand has been separated as its own land mass for over 65 million years, the bird species became extremely specialized in the habitats they occupied and in their way of foraging, leading to great speciation. This pattern of course changed with human settlement as the introduced rats and cats brought many bird species to extinction, plummeting the special total. Nowadays, conservation for the birds is quite strong, a somewhat easier task due to the fact that New Zealand is not an overpopulated country with plenty of habitat, or at the very least space for habitat restoration. This doesn’t mean of course that all is merry as some species are only holding on by a thread, but at least the country as a whole is moving in the right direction.

Kailani and I visited New Zealand for her PhD studies this summer (New Zealand’s winter). Though we were mostly in Wellington, we had the opportunity to make a few weekend excursions to look for some wildlife, by default being mostly endemic birds.

Land Birds

One of the closest, bird life filled places to Wellington is Kapiti Island. It is a small island separated from the main land by a fifteen minute boat ride, but most importantly, it is possum and rat free. That means the birds have no predators on the island and can go about their business as if humans had never come (aka, yipee for the birds!).

A few trails run through the forested section of the island, so we hiked around in there for a bit. Before long we got to see numerous New Zealand Robins. Specifically the North Island Robin, the subspecies endemic to the North Island of New Zealand.

New Zealand Robin (Petroica australis longipes) female, Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

New Zealand Robin (Petroica australis longipes) female, Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

From there we wandered into the habitat taking up most of the island, shrubland. Quite easy to find there are the New Zealand Pigeons. The subspecies is the nominate type, found on all of the mainland of New Zealand.

New Zealand Pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae novaeseelandiae), Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

New Zealand Pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae novaeseelandiae), Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

After that we had lunch at one of the few buildings on the island, which are surrounded by all so natural lawns, which also happen to be a favorite grazing area for the endemic Weka, a rail species. The subspecies here is the North Island Weka (Gallirallus australis greyi).

Weka (Gallirallus australis greyi), Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

Weka (Gallirallus australis greyi), Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

And soon after that we were treated to a sighting for which we made the whole trip. The Takahe is a bird thought extinct for fifty years, until it was rediscovered in 1948 by Geoffrey Orbell (how cool would it feel to be the person rediscovering a species thought extinct!).  There are still only less than 300 individuals left of this bird but their population numbers are rising. To increase their chances of survival, birds have been moved to predator free islands (like Kapiti) to let them breed there, after which offspring get moved to different locations for subsequent breeding efforts. On Kapiti, there were three individuals, a breeding pair and their offspring, and we got to see all three of them! A perfect way to finish off the weekend!

Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri) grazing, Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri) grazing, Kapiti Island, North Island, New Zealand

Seabirds

Then came the seabirds. I am not sure why I have a secret fascination with them, maybe its because they fly huge distances, often breed on offshore islands where no people live, are some of the most graceful fliers (or gliders), and can be hard to find (well, I guess I do know why I love them!). To try our luck with endemic New Zealand seabirds, Kailani and I did two pelagic trips out of Kaikoura, and boy were we not disappointed. Below are all the endemics we saw (all albatrosses) though we also had the pleasure of seeing Cape Petrels for our first time, as well as Northern and Southern Giant Petrels!

Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis) on water, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis) on water, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Gibson's Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni) gliding over ocean, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Gibson’s Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni) gliding over ocean, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora) on water, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora) on water, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

White-capped Albatross (Thalassarche steadi) on water, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

White-capped Albatross (Thalassarche steadi) on water, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri) flying over ocean, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Buller’s Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri) flying over ocean, Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

Maybe the most amazing part of it all is that there are a ton more endemic birds we didn’t see. Sounds to me like we need to go back :). Have any of you been to New Zealand? Any birding spots you can recommend to the rest of us?

Conservation Struggles in Yemen

The country of Yemen has amazing natural areas, many of them undiscovered and most definitely under appreciated by the local as well as the international audience. Due to its geographical location, Yemen has many endemic plants while also supporting animals found in Africa as well as Asia. The survival of these species is a fragile one; if the country and its people continue to disregard the potential of these areas they may forever be lost.

A case study for this is the Hawf Protected Area at the border of Yemen and Oman. Due to an escarpment right next to the coast and the seasonal monsoons, a cloud forest persists at this location. Beyond the initial mountain range, the normal desert ecosystem of the area exists.

Cloud forest and escarpment, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Cloud forest and escarpment, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Cloud forest, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Cloud forest, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Desert wadi (valley) system at sunset, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Desert wadi (valley) system at sunset, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

In these habitats you can find endemic plant and animal species like Golden-winged Grosbeaks, South Arabian Wheatears, Tristam’s Starling, and Desert Rose Plants.

Golden-winged Grosbeak (Rhynchostruthus socotranus) male, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Golden-winged Grosbeak (Rhynchostruthus socotranus) male, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Tristram's Starling (Onychognathus tristramii) male, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Tristram’s Starling (Onychognathus tristramii) male, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

South Arabian Wheatear (Oenanthe lugentoides) male, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

South Arabian Wheatear (Oenanthe lugentoides) male, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Desert Rose (Adenium obesum) plant at sunset, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Desert Rose (Adenium obesum) plant at sunset, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Not to mention, the ocean is simply beautiful, warm, clear, and provides its own unique wildlife.

These ecosystems are under much pressure though, it seems like all the environmental issues one can throw at an environment are impacting these ones.

There is hunting pressure of predators, large ungulates, and small game. Increased roads provide better access to formerly inaccessible nature areas. Overgrazing by camels, cows, sheep, and goats leave less for native herbivores.  Logging of trees destroys the dense cover needed by many species. Finally, pollution, specifically trash that is thrown anywhere and everywhere, can cause direct effects on animals as well as simply making an area less attractive to tourists.

Hunter with Kaloshnikov, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Hunter with Kaloshnikov, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Road dissecting forest, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Road dissecting forest, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Road and livestock paths on mountain side, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Road and livestock paths on mountain side, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Livestock paths on mountain side, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Livestock paths on mountain side, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Camel feeding on acacia, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Camel feeding on acacia, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Camel browsing on acacia, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Camel browsing on acacia, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Cows grazing, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Cows grazing, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Sheep grazing, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Sheep grazing, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Clear cut area, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Clear cut area, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Trash in Hawf city, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

Trash in Hawf city, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

And the ecotourism potential in this area is huge. The people are willing to host foreigners and openly welcome them. The environment is gorgeous and provides a home for many endemic species as well as charismatic megafauna like Arabian Leopards, Striped Hyenas, Arabian Wolves, Honey Badgers!!!, Sea Turtles, and Dolphins.

This is why the work that David Stanton of the Foundation for the Protection of the Arabian Leopard in Yemen is doing is so important. By focusing on a large predator as the Arabian Leopard he ensures that if he is successful, the large scale habitat it needs to survive protects not only the cat, but all the species that call that environment their home as well. Coupling that with convincing the local people that tourist money is a whole lot more than they can get for selling a goat has the real potential of benefiting both the people and the wildlife there. Though it is an uphill battle, David is fighting it well and I personally think he is undertaking the correct steps to lead to a better Yemen for humans and animals alike. You can personally help out by donating to David’s foundation by contacting him at his email address contact@yemenileopard.org

David Stanton and Yousuf Mohageb giving workshop on the benefits of protecting the Arabian Leopard, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen

David Stanton and Yousuf Mohageb giving workshop on the benefits of protecting the Arabian Leopard, Hawf Protected Area, Yemen