Hope for saving S'pore's last wild cat

Leopard cat sighted on Pulau Ubin last November. Fewer than 50 leopard cats remain in Singapore and its surrounding islands. PHOTO: ROBBINTANN/INSTAGRAM

SINGAPORE - Three sightings of leopard cats last year on Pulau Ubin herald hope that there are more of the nationally critically endangered species than initially believed.

Published on Saturday, the record joins just two published reports of Singapore's last wild cat on the island - in 2014 and 1997.

Mammal scientist Marcus Chua of Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum said the recent sightings of the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) on Pulau Ubin are "good news" as they show that the island has a resident population and its habitat can support the species.

"Previous records of leopard cats on Pulau Ubin were rather sporadic and we could not be sure if they were of the same animal," he said. "What would be better news is when there is evidence that leopard cats are breeding on Ubin."

He noted that the public contributed to the sightings and welcomed more people to submit their observations to the museum to aid in conservation.

Fewer than 50 leopard cats remain in Singapore and its surrounding islands, based on the last rigorous population study in 2012, he said.

They prowl Singapore's forests by night, with their spotted hides cloaked in darkness.

But the camouflage cannot shield Singapore's last remaining wild cats from humans. Vehicles, in particular, are a major threat to these cats, which often find themselves on roads due to forest fragmentation.

Sadly, leopard cats are most frequently sighted as roadkill, said Dr Vilma D'Rozario, co-director of the Singapore Wildcat Action Group. At least four have been killed along roads in places such as Changi and Mandai in the past 10 years.

This shy species - about the size of a domestic cat - lives in secondary forests and mangroves. It mainly hunts small creatures such as rats and frogs.

To safeguard the species, the National Parks Board (NParks) is working to develop green corridors to enable the cats to find new mates and avoid speeding cars.

Dr D'Rozario said: "Strengthening connectivity between forest fragments will definitely help the cats find food and company.

"It's a pity that much of Tengah forest is lost, because if that had been preserved, they could make their way to Bukit Timah."

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Still, reforestation through NParks' movement to plant more than a million trees across Singapore will help enhance habitats for the wild cats to live in, she added.

As human developments are brought closer to wildlife, people can help protect leopard cats through simple actions such as driving slowly on the edges of forest reserves and following basic etiquette when observing wildlife.

Said Dr D'Rozario: "To respect the forest reserves, leave by 7pm, avoid making a lot of noise, and try to avoid flash photography because this can hurt the animal's eyes."

The Singapore Wildcat Action Group continues to raise awareness about the species in the hope that people will take more notice of the issues leopard cats face.

Until the end of next month, visitors can find out more about the elusive creature in an exhibition by the group at the Wallace Education Centre in Dairy Farm Road.

Remembering the Tiger

A short video created by a wildcat advocacy group for the Year of the Tiger traces the route to the site in Choa Chu Kang where the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot and killed in October 1930. 

Next month, members of the public will be able to visit the spot revealed in the video by the Singapore Wildcat Action Group (Swag).

While tigers are associated with strength and vitality in Chinese culture, Malayan tigers in the wild might soon be gone for good from poaching and habitat loss. Fewer than 200 of the subspecies are left in the forests of Peninsular Malaysia, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). 

Since 2015, they have been listed as critically endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. 

Swag co-director Vilma D’Rozario said the group raises funds for the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers’ community ranger project against poaching. Rangers from a local indigenous tribe patrol the forests to detect and remove illegal snares. 

From Feb 26, members of the public can learn more about tiger conservation with the launch of an island-wide tiger trail by WWF Singapore featuring 33 life-size tiger art sculptures.

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