Nature & Us Sustainable Living

Conserving Our Last Native Wildcat: The Leopard Cat

leopard cat

[Photograph credit: Marcus Chua]

This blogpost is writen by Daphne Ong, volunteer with the Singapore Wildcat Action Groupwww.swagcat.org

You always hear about various species such as tigers, being threatened with extinction based on the IUCN Red List. If you are new to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), it is a global authority for the status of the natural world. It advises on the essential steps that we need to safeguard our environment.

Most of the time, you would think that this list is not as relevant to us because we rarely see wildlife in our highly urbanised environment. But look closer, immerse yourself in our nature spaces, and you might get a surprise!

Did you know Singapore has a native wildcat?

It’s called the leopard cat, and there are fewer than 50 living here. Singapore is also home to the critically endangered Raffles Banded Langur, which is an endemic species found in Singapore and Southern Malaysia. If you’re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of a Sunda Pangolin in our forests, another species in critical decline due to the effects of the illegal wildlife trade.

What Are Leopard Cats?

So what are leopard cats and how are they different from our domestic cats?

Firstly, leopard cats are actually similar in size to domestic cats!  They are, however, slender and have longer legs. Their tails are half their head to body length.

They are recognised by their small faces, rounded ears and unique coat pattern, which you would have guessed by now, has spots. As with all wildcats, they are elusive and hence difficult to spot among dense foliage. Their diet consists of small mammals, birds, frogs and even insects.

leopard cats

[Photograph credit: Toh Wei Yang]

Similar to domestic cats, they are generally very shy and are masters of stealth, making them hard to spot amongst dense foliage. However, as they belong to the wild, they do not make good house pets as they require a large area to roam and hunt.

Like most wildlife, if left undisturbed and not provoked, they would generally steer clear of human interaction.

Leopard Cats and Urbanisation

The leopard cat population in Singapore dropped drastically between 1800 and the 1920s when they were last commonly spotted. Rapid urbanization and deforestation after WWII led to a drastic decrease in its population. Leopard cat sightings in Singapore are so rare that most records are from remote camera trap images.

April Fools (leopard cat pictured above) was photographed back in 2011 and it has been 10 years since the last photograph of a live leopard cat was captured! Most recently in November 2021, a photograph was beyond lucky to have met a leopard cat during his nightwalk. Besides these encounters, the more notable “sightings” in recent times were mostly tragic victims of roadkill.

leopard cats conservation

The current stronghold of our leopard cat population lies in the off-shore military protected island of Pulau Tekong where their habitat is generally undisturbed. There are also a few that have been spotted on the mainland in the central and western catchment nature reserves by local ecologists.

Having lost our largest terrestrial predator, the Malayan tiger in the 1930s, we are now left with the leopard cat as our only native wildcat and the only other apex predator (predators like tigers that exist at the very top of the food chain) on the island besides the reticulated python. Apex predators are the species at the top of the food chain.  They play a critical role in controlling prey density, which in turn regulates other ecological aspects in this fragile food web.

Such critical interactions known as trophic cascades are crucial in maintaining a balanced ecosystem which without, we would suffer tremendous repercussions such as flooding and the likes. This is even more important for a place like Singapore where we’re left with only about of forest reserve carrying over 50% of our native biodiversity. If the leopard cat disappears from our ecosystem, it will be akin to losing the thread that holds fabric together.

How You Can Help The Endangered Leopard Cats

Fight against illegal trade

There had been a few reported cases of leopard cats being imported illegally into Singapore in the past. There was a recent tip-off in July last year that two Asian leopard cats were being illegally kept at a Housing and Development Board (HDB) unit.

“By taking wildlife away from their natural environment, it not only causes harm to the animal but also poses an irrefutable risk of extinction to the wild population,” as shared by Dr Sonja Luz, director, conservation, research and veterinary services at WRS

In addition, if the species are not found in Singapore, it can potentially cause an imbalance to our local leopard cat population from the spread of diseases.

Protect their habitats

Protecting the habitats of the leopard cats is one way in which we can ensure their survival. Our forests are not just habitats for the leopard cat, but they also provide various ecosystem services for our people. Take care of our habitats as it is more than us living and surviving in it.

Read more: Hiking: Are You Doing It Sustainably?

[Photograph credit: Rachel Lee]

From the fresh air that we breathe to the reprieve that we get from being outdoors and in touch with nature. Choosing to live sustainably also means caring for and to be in harmony with the wildlife that shares the space with us.

The return of the otters to our waterways after so many years shows that protection and care for their natural habitat will allow a species to re-establish their presence in our society once again. This gives us renewed hope that the leopard cat population can rebound provided we choose to act now!

Lend A Helping Hand 

Formed in 2019, Singapore Wildcat Action Group (SWAG) is a registered non-profit run entirely by volunteers. They believe in taking meaningful action to achieve our mission: to build a network of supporters for wildcat conservation and raise funds to save the critically endangered Malayan Tiger.

leopard cats awareness event

[Photograph credit: Wu Bingyu]

Key Activities:

– Raise awareness of wildcat conservation through regular lectures, and an annual conference on tigers.

– Take action for wildcats, for example, participating in Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT Walk) and painting a community mural to raise awareness about leopard cats

– Educate children about wildcats, and nurture a love for wildlife

– Recruit volunteers to work in various areas: fund raising, training, event management and marketing. Please write to us at swag.cat.sg@gmail.com or message us on social media if you’re interested in joining us 🙂

– Raise funds for the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers through various fundraisers and the sale of SWAG merchandise.

By taking part in the conservation efforts of the local organisations such as SWAG, it will substantially help to sustain the efforts in helping these critically endangered cats!

Be A Part of Raising Awareness

Some other ways in which you can act is, start by having conversations and raising awareness of this wildcat species amongst your loved ones. Be aware and slow down when driving around forested areas.

SWAG is running a campaign on leopard cat conservation. One event is a community art project taking place in December 2021. In the heart of Singapore’s business district, people are invited to paint the walls of the underpass at Elgin bridge, spanning 20 meters on each of two walls. SWAG hopes that this will create a better awareness about the critical challenges and issues facing not just the leopard cat but biodiversity in Singapore.

[Artwork Image Courtesy of Mural Lingo]

It is hoped that the mural will also be a powerful tool to create conversations about challenges leopard cats and other wildlife face and to remind people of the importance of preserving what’s left of our natural world especially with the looming climate crisis. We lost our very last Malayan tiger and we should not allow history to repeat itself again with our leopard cat.

This project has been successfully funded via a kickstarter campaign and through the support of various sponsors. You can follow our social media or the kickstarter page to find out more about the leopard cat mural project! You can also DM us via Instagram if you’d still like to participate in the leopard cat mural project.

Follow SWAG at www.swagcat.org to keep updated on more wildcat related news. Do follow us on our social media platforms on Instagram (@swag.cat.sg) and Facebook (facebook.com/SingaporeWildcatActionGroup) for updates on our upcoming events.

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