Why is Researching Wild Cats so Challenging?

By Kelly Carton
Lead Integrated Content Strategist

Snow leopard camera trap

Wild cats are notoriously difficult to study for numerous reasons, including the remote, rugged nature of their habitats that often expand across incredibly broad distributions, the rarity of certain species and their elusive nature. Despite these challenges, Panthera researchers traverse inhospitable terrain, from mountainous regions with waist-deep snow to dense tropical rainforests that can only be navigated on foot. 

The success of a wildlife conservation initiative is reliant on four key factors: a data-driven understanding of a species and its population trends, stabilization and/or recovery of that species, a connected and secure habitat, and finally, capacity building and creating the conditions necessary long-term success. In this blog, we’ll explore the first of these four factors: the need for and the challenges associated with gathering data on a species and its threats, upon which an enduring conservation action plan can be designed. Failure to properly monitor three especially elusive cats — snow leopards, flat-headed cats and fishing cats — can hinder successful conservation programs, but Panthera and partners are devising comprehensive solutions to better understand the conservation needs of these secretive felines.

Snow leopard pair

Using Conservation Genetics to Detect Snow Leopards 

With large paws and long, fluffy tails that aid with both maintaining warmth and keeping their balance on rugged terrain, snow leopards have adapted to live in some of Asia’s highest mountain ranges — places extremely difficult for humans to navigate. To make matters more challenging, the species, which is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, typically occurs only sparsely across its habitat, which expands over massive stretches of land. Researching low population densities of snow leopards, spread across as many as 2.8 million square kilometers, requires significant time and effort. While motion-activated cameras (camera traps) have helped us learn more about the species and its distribution, this is only one piece of the conservation puzzle. Snow leopards are still the least understood of the seven big cat species, even though they are critically important in shaping the food web in their ecosystems. In addition to traditional conservation research methods, we are also utilizing  genetic techniques to gather comprehensive data and better monitor and protect rare species like snow leopards. 

Non-invasive approaches to collecting DNA have become reliable means by which to identify and monitor rare species in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Collecting fecal samples from snow leopards gives us an adequate DNA profile of the individual, which in turn enables us to answer important conservation questions without ever needing to directly observe them. In 2022, Panthera’s Conservation Genetics team, in collaboration with the National Genomics Center, and dozens of range-state partners, completed an extensive snow leopard genetic dataset, with DNA from more than 150 individual snow leopards across ten countries in High Asia. This work, completed at the United States Forest Service National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation, has unveiled important insights, including evidence for low genetic variation across the species, and genetic isolation between populations, which might reflect challenges for snow leopard population distribution. Genetic variation is important because it helps improve a species’ resiliency and ability to adapt to environmental changes and wildlife disease. With a better understanding of the species’ gene flow and connectivity, we can fine-tune our conservation efforts to ensure we protect the most important corridors between snow leopards to maintain vital gene flow between populations at local and global scales. Learn more about this ongoing project.

Flat-headed cat in Borneo
©nick garbutt

Finding an Endangered Small Cat 

Flat-Headed Cats, which can be found from Southern Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, are considered one of the rarest species in the world and Southeast Asia’s most threatened small felid. The species was last formally surveyed by the IUCN Red List in 2014 and was classified as Endangered, with an estimated 2,499 mature individuals in the wild. While many questions about flat-headed cats’ basic ecological needs remain, including its behavior, habitat use and reproductive habits, we do know that as a small carnivore, these felines play a unique role in their wetland ecosystems by controlling populations of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Flat-headed cats are also an indicator species whose presence helps demonstrate the health of their wetland habitats. When we can observe flat-headed cats, with their highly specialized habitats and diets, it indicates that their ecosystems and the species with whom they coexist are healthy. 

In our study area in Malaysian Borneo’s Deramakot-Tankulap Forest Reserve complex, the Panthera team set up six clusters of 25 camera traps along waterways in which flat-headed cats were previously detected. Even with this targeted approach, only one flat-headed cat was detected, demonstrating just how rare this species is. As with snow leopards, traditional methods are insufficient, so we are exploring the feasibility of using environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis to detect traces of flat-headed cats in the waterways. However, building an eDNA tool for this purpose requires an initial sizable investment of funding and invasive samples (blood or tissue) from all five small cat species in Borneo. If you want to help species like flat-headed cats, learn more about them and please consider donating to Panthera to support critical research initiatives like this one.

Fishing cat in Thailand
©sebastian kennerknecht

Fishing For and Finding Solutions in Thailand 

Finally, our work with fishing cats, another rare species, serves as a great case study of Panthera’s four pillars of work in action: research, species recovery, habitat protection and long-term capacity-building. These small cats are classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN and the global population is estimated to be decreasing. Protecting fishing cats helps solidify their vital role as carnivores in wetland areas like mangrove forests, which helps balance these ecosystems that store large amounts of carbon and are critical in the global effort to mitigate climate change. 

Although questions about the species remain, Panthera and partners have made great strides in understanding the species' ecology and needs — culminating in a 5-year action plan for fishing cats in Thailand. After conducting an in-depth ecological study about fishing cats and the threats they face, including fitting 11 fishing cats with GPS collars and conducting interviews with local people in neighboring communities, we know that the biggest threats to the species’ survival are habitat fragmentation (primarily from shrimp farms and aquaculture) and human-cat conflict (resulting from retaliatory killings after fishing cats hunt chickens). We are helping conserve the species by working with local communities and providing them with better quality materials for their chicken pens to increase human-cat coexistence and offering educational opportunities for both children and adults that promote the valuable role fishing cats play in their habitats. We are also conducting research into dangerous pollutants in the waterways in which fishing cats hunt. We continue to learn from and collaborate with a number of core partners* including government entities, local NGOs and educational institutions. Although projects like these take years to make an impact, we can happily share that we have received zero reports of fishing cats being killed through retaliatory attacks in 2023. 

Wild Research 

While the challenges scientists face when researching wild cats are many, with new innovations and techniques, Panthera is steadily uncovering more data about wild cat ecology, distribution, behavior and ultimately, conservation needs. Though wild cat researchers will continue to face more challenges when researching rare wild cats in rugged habitats, camera traps, collaring technology, non-invasive DNA and more innovations have enabled Panthera to overcome these challenges and develop robust research about rare wild cat species. Just as non-invasive DNA helps us map snow leopard genetics, this and other conservation tools are helping us map a better future for wild cats both big and small.

*Panthera would like to thank our core partners in our work to protect fishing cats: the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plants Conservation (DNP), King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT), Seub Nakhasathien Foundation (SNF), Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park (KSRY), Zoological Park Organization (ZPO), Akkhararatchakumari Veterinary College (AVC, WU), and the Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University (KU).