From a ridge overlooking western Miaoli County, densely wooded hills roll off into the distant sea, the green canopy broken only occasionally by rice fields or rooftops. This is prime leopard cat territory, according to Chen Mei-ting, Taiwan’s foremost leopard cat researcher who has dedicated much of her life to the study of these shy, elusive felines.
Taiwan’s only surviving wild cat, leopard cats are roughly the size of housecats with tawny black-spotted pelts and thrive in Taiwan’s lower elevations of around 500 meters. Areas that mix wilderness with agriculture are particularly hospitable for them as rice fields provide ideal habitats for leopard cats’ favorite prey: field mice and other rodents.
Yet despite the beauty and bounty of the Miaoli countryside, the green canopy hides a more ominous reality. While leopard cats are considered a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as they are fairly pervasive across a wide range of habitats from Pakistan to Siberia and the Indonesian archipelago, the species is on the edge of extinction in Taiwan. Researchers with the Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute (TESRI) under the Council of Agriculture estimate Taiwan’s leopard cat numbers at less than 500 animals divided into three isolated populations in Miaoli, Nantou, and Taichung counties.
While leopard cats are considered a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)… the species is on the edge of extinction in Taiwan.
The species suffers from pesticide contamination (consumed through their prey), as well as road kills associated with increased traffic in rural areas. The leopard cats also continue to be actively hunted and poisoned, especially in Miaoli where farmers worry about the risk to their free-range chickens, which can fetch as much as NT$2,000 each in the market. When the chickens become part of the leopard cats’ diet, pleas for sympathy for an endangered species fall on deaf ears and local poachers are called in to take care of the problem.
“These farmers don’t keep so many chickens – maybe 10 to 20 – and they’re big money for the local people,” explains Chen. “Sometimes they’ll lose one chicken every two days, which is a big loss.”
When the chickens become part of the leopard cats’ diet, pleas for sympathy for an endangered species fall on deaf ears and local poachers are called in to take care of the problem.
Leopard cats are protected under Taiwanese law, but Chen complains that during her 10 years of research she has seen little evidence of enforcement of anti-poaching laws in regard to leopard cats. “At the beginning of my research, I wanted to tell the police about the hunters, but the hunters said the police won’t do anything,” she recalls. “The police don’t want to have arguments or be an enemy to the local people. If the local people don’t like the leopard cats, it’s very difficult to prosecute.”
Wildlife biologists have proposed compensating farmers for losses to their chickens, but Chen says that the government is reluctant to take that step, as it would open the door for compensation for the widespread crop damage caused by other species, namely Taiwan’s famous monkey, the Formosan macaque. Instead, Chen has formed an NGO that will respond to claims of losses due to leopard cats, and after investigating will pay compensation if the claims are justified. Resources are tight, however, and farmers are still more likely to kill the animal rather than seek compensation.
“The police don’t want to have arguments or be an enemy to the local people. If the local people don’t like the leopard cats, it’s very difficult to prosecute.”
Meanwhile, traditional ties to the land have weakened as farming loses its appeal for younger generations, and property values have risen dramatically in recent years. Many landowners are opting to sell the family farm to developers, spurring increased development in the Miaoli area for the affluent in search of their own country estates. “Habitat destruction is the largest threat to leopard cats,” observes Chen, who notes that each animal requires a territory of some five to 10 square kilometers.
Roadbuilding and possibly the negative effects of pesticides on their neurological systems also leave leopard cats vulnerable to traffic accidents. Chen is promoting the cultivation of pesticide-free “leopard cat rice” as a higher-value alternative to conventional rice grown with heavy applications of pesticide, and is also promoting the housing of chickens in leopard-cat-proof coops.
Neither of these concepts has gained much traction, however. Selling leopard cat rice is more complicated than dealing with the traditional rice merchants, even if it can potentially command a higher price, and few small farmers want to invest in costly coops to protect their chickens. But perhaps the biggest hurdle is cultural; the farmers in these hills have been long set in their ways and are not likely to listen to advice from outsiders.
The leopard cat population in Nantou seems to be more secure, says Chen, noting that the local residents there have been long used to the presence of TESRI and are more accepting of environmental protection concepts. Wildlife biologists are also discussing the potential for reintroducing the species into New Taipei City’s Feitsui Dam watershed as a way to mitigate against possible extermination in Miaoli.