Borneo bay cat photographed in heavily logged region

Extremely rare sighting raises hopes that larger mammals are more able to survive in logged areas than previously thought

One of the world's most elusive wild cats has been captured on camera in a heavily logged area of Borneo rainforest together with four other endangered species, suggesting that some wildlife can survive in highly disturbed forests.

The Bornean bay cat (Pardofelis badia) has been recorded on camera traps on just a handful of occasions to date and was only photographed in the wild for the first time in southern Sarawak in 2003. The cat, extremely secretive and similar in size to a large domestic cat with a long tail and either a reddish or grey coat, had been classified as extinct until new images taken in Malaysian Borneo in 2009 and 2010 gave fresh hope for its survival.

Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Imperial College London have captured more a dozen images of this animal following a study in Kalabakan forest reserve, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, together with evidence of four other wild cat species in a heavily logged area of forest where they were not expected to thrive.

Dr Robert Ewers of the department of life sciences at Imperial College London, who leads the Safe tropical forest conservation project in Borneo, said the discovery of the cats was evidence that large species can survive in commercially logged forests: "We were completely surprised to see so many bay cats at these sites in Borneo where natural forests have been so heavily logged for the timber trade. Conservationists used to assume that very few wild animals could live in logged forest, but we now know this land can be home for many endangered species."

The area is only one of four forest areas in all of Borneo – the third largest island in the world and shared between Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia – that has so far been reported to contain all five species, including the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) and marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata).

All five species are important to the forest ecosystem because they are predators of a wide range of other animals. They are also highly threatened: four of the five species are listed as threatened with extinction on the IUCN's "red list".

Camera traps – an automated digital device that takes a flash photo whenever an animal triggers an infrared sensor – have revolutionised wildlife research and conservation, enabling scientists to collect photographic evidence of rarely seen and often globally endangered species, with little expense, relative ease, and minimal disturbance to wildlife.

Borneo bay cat
Borneo bay cat Photograph: Oliver Wearn/Safe Project Photograph: Oliver Wearn/Safe Project

The use of camera traps has led to major wildlife discoveries in recent years. They have shown an Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) in China for the first time in 62 years and confirmed breeding among a population of the world's rarest rhinoceros, the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus). It has also led to the discovery of new species including the Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi) of south-east Asia and the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis), a species of elephant shrew endemic to Tanzania.

ZSL and Imperial College London PhD researcher Oliver Wearn said: "We discovered that randomly placed cameras have a big influence on the species recorded … The cameras record multiple sightings, sometimes of species which we might be very lucky to see even after spending years in an area. For example, I've seen the clouded leopard just twice in three years of fieldwork, while my cameras recorded 14 video sequences of this enigmatic cat in just eight months."

With rates of forest loss and degradation in south-east Asia exceeding all other tropical regions, and the majority of remaining forest in a highly disturbed state, scientists say there is now an urgent need for accurate assessments of the impacts on wildlife in the region.

ZSL and Imperial College London conservationists will continue to study the effects of logging on wildlife populations, looking more broadly at other mammal species, large and small. More detailed work aims to gather the information to help palm oil producers make their plantations more mammal-friendly, and assess whether saving patches of forest within such areas might be a viable option for saving Borneo's mammals.


Jessica Aldred

The GuardianTramp

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