Panthera's Small Cats Program

By Wai-Ming Wong, Ph.D.
Director, Small Cat Conservation Science

Clouded leopard camera trap.

October 30, 2018

The big cats have captured our imaginations for centuries. They stand as iconic symbols of power and courage, and few living mammals have been so deeply woven into culture, religion, and folklore. Yet, big cats represent only a small part of the cat family. There are 40 recognized species of wild cats in the world, and while most people could name the 7 big cats, only few could name the 33 smaller ones. With the official launch of Panthera’s new Small Cats Program, we will seek to expand our understanding of these increasingly threatened species and how to protect them. By bringing small cats to your attention, we hope to increase your understanding of their critical place in the world’s ecosystems and encourage you to become experts and enthusiasts along with us. Let’s get started!

Ranging in size from the diminutive rusty-spotted cat, weighing around 5 pounds when fully grown, to the 50-pound Eurasian lynx, small wild cat species inhabit five of the world’s seven continents (excluding Australia and Antarctica) and are superbly adapted to an array of natural and increasingly unnatural environments, from deserts to rainforests to city parks. 

Pallas's cat

Compared to other cats and carnivores, very little is known about the small cats. These felids are elusive. Some are nocturnal, others are arboreal (living in trees), and all are rare and secretive, making them especially difficult to study. Many species are in danger of extinction, and some are so cryptic that we can describe only their appearance and approximate geographic range. Some have never even been studied in the wild. Species such as the Bornean bay cat and Andean mountain cat are so uncommon that only a handful of people have seen them in the wild, and they’ve rarely been photographed on camera traps. 

Furthermore, resource allocation for wild cat research efforts is strongly associated with body size, i.e., larger cats receive the bulk of the attention and dollars. While 12 of the world’s 18 most threatened wild felids are small cat species, they still receive a fraction—some estimates say less than one percent—of all the funding committed to wild cat conservation.

Rusty spotted cat.

Only a handful of studies have investigated the key ecological aspects of small cats, and only for a few species at that. Subsequently, there are huge knowledge gaps about small cats, including information on their population statistics and threats. This lack of data can significantly hamper conservation action, and can even make many small cat species appear as low priorities on the conservation agenda, even if they are highly threatened in reality. Moreover, while some species may be considered common, little is known about how land use change and other threats impact them.

Small cats are just as charismatic as their larger cousins – they’re nature’s most perfect predators. The black-footed cat, for example, is Africa’s smallest cat, but also the deadliest of the entire cat family--with a 60% hunting success rate. The water-loving Asian fishing cat and flat-headed cat have evolved to become expert swimmers and divers, hunting primarily by plunging into rivers and streams. Unlike most other cats, their claws do no fully retract, enabling them to grip their slippery prey. The clouded leopard, marbled cat, and margay are acrobats of the trees. They are able to hang upside down on branches and climb down tree trunks head-first to catch their prey. The list of small cats’ big feats goes on and on, and these are just a few of the species we plan to focus our newest program’s efforts on.

Eurasian Lynx
©Sebastian Kennerknecht

Small cat species form essential links in our global ecosystems, but desperately require the same attention and status as the larger cats. It’s crucial that we understand their fundamental ecological needs, in order to establish effective conservation initiatives to safeguard their future. For example, if we don’t know how large a population is or a species’ habitat requirements, we’re unable to protect suitable areas for their needs—the science is critical here.

Black footed cat

Of the five continents roamed by small cats, Asia has the most to lose. Not only is it home to the greatest number of small cat species (14!), it’s also where the animals are least understood and under greatest threat. Panthera’s Small Cats Program will initially focus in high-priority areas across Southeast Asia, adopting a multi-species approach to study and conserve the clouded leopard (Sunda and Indochinese species), flat-headed cat, Bornean bay cat, marbled cat, Asian golden cat, and fishing cat. Other priority regions and species include:

Central Asia:  manul (Pallas’s cat)
South America:  guigna (kodkod), margay, southern oncilla, northern oncilla
North America:  bobcat
Africa: black-footed cat, sand cat, African golden cat
Europe:  Scottish wildcat

Marbled cat

We urgently need to know the basics: Where do these cats live? How many are there? Are their populations increasing, decreasing, or are they stable? What time of day are they active? What threats do they face? Without answers to these questions to help us design targeted action to their needs, small cats may not meaningfully benefit from protection and conservation efforts. Conservation strategies don’t even exist for the majority of small wild cat species. Panthera’s new Small Cats Program aims to dismantle the status quo for these species with conservation research and action around the globe, in the lab and on the ground, to demystify small cats’ ecology, needs, and threats. Small wild cats are special and, as such, require special conservation approaches. We’re proud to say that Panthera’s newest goal is to provide the conservation attention they desperately need, so that no wild cat, big or small, will be left behind in the race against extinction.

To learn more about small wild cats and our current (and expanding!) projects to research and protect them, visit our program page here.