Shrouded within the dense rainforests, misty mountains and hills of South and Southeast Asia, a master of stealth and agility prowls the treetops — the magnificent marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata).
This elusive and enchanting feline, often overshadowed by its larger cousins, holds a unique place in the intricate tapestry of our planet's biodiversity.
But there are looming threats that cast a shadow on its future.
Behind a cloak of elusiveness
The marbled cat's name itself evokes images of a beautifully decorated pattern. And indeed, its coat is a masterpiece of nature. Its fur features a mesmerising blend of swirling dark lines and intricate spots that render it almost invisible amidst the dappled sunlight of its habitat. Standing at the intersection of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the marbled cat's appearance is something that nature can craft in the hidden corners of the world.
A creature of the shadows, the cat prefers the cover of night and the depths of twilight. Its slender body and large, expressive eyes are the tools of its trade, honed for nocturnal activities. What truly sets this small feline apart, however, is its remarkable agility in the trees. With graceful leaps and acrobatic prowess, it navigates the branches with finesse, making it a true arboreal wonder.
Recent scientific efforts have begun to unravel the mysteries of the marbled cat's dietary preferences. While its secretive nature has long kept its hunting traits concealed, researchers now believe that the marbled cat is a proficient predator of birds, squirrels, and other tree-dwelling creatures. This diet aligns perfectly with its treetop lifestyle, showcasing its adaptability to the complex ecosystems it calls home.
In the rich tapestry of Bangladesh
As unbelievable as it might seem, Bangladesh, indeed, is a marbled cat range country. The hills of eastern Bangladesh host this small cat. The species was first documented in 2014 by Professor Dr Monirul H Khan of Jahangirnagar University. A kitten, after its mother was chased away by stray dogs, was rescued in Sri Mangal at an ethnic minority village that borders some mixed evergreen forest patches.
Nobody could identify the uniquely patterned kitten. Dr Khan was the first to spot its speciality. Later, Creative Conservation Alliance, an NGO, camera-trapped the cat from deep within Bandarbans in 2016.
Last November, locals spotted a very unusual cat lying dead on the newly built Bayezid Link Road, crushed under a car. My heart sank. It was a marbled cat. My conservationist colleague Shahriar Caesar Rahman speculated that the cat might be an escapee from any wildlife lot being illegally trafficked or any secret menagerie maintained by some influential people.
Although without strong indications, drawing any conclusion was difficult.
If you look at the new highway on Google Earth, you will notice that it was curved out, destroying some southernmost patches of the Sitakunda Hill Ranges. Now, these hills are low-lying but extremely rugged, often more than the Sangu and Kassalong Hills. The Sitakunda Hills should have the cat, my hunch said.
Then, a startling discovery was made later in the summer of 2023. Dr Kamrul Hasan and Dr Mostafa Feeroz, two zoology professors at Jahangirnagar University, camera-framed another specimen from the Bariyardhala National Park. Now, the park is literally a part of the greater Sitakunda Hills.
A study that came out this year in the journal Ecosphere reiterated the same possibility. The researchers from an Australian lab statistically analysed the situation in Southeast Asia. The study proved that the cat has the most affinities with ruggedness and forest cover. The denser and tougher a hill forest becomes, the chances get higher to find a marbled cat there.
These are all four incidents we know that indicate the existence of the species in Bangladesh. All came out in less than a decade. As the cat is elusive, very much tree-loving, and very hard to spot, we must not discard any possibility without proper study. Conservatory decision based on guesswork is a risky deal.
Threats to the survival
Despite its captivating charm, the marbled cat's future hinges on the balance due to a host of formidable threats. The most prominent one of these is habitat loss — a peril faced by countless species worldwide.
Rapid deforestation, driven by human activities and urban expansion, is encroaching upon the marbled cat's territory. As pristine forests are cleared, the cat's hunting grounds shrink, and its ability to roam freely is compromised. The cat is diurnal, making it more prone to get into contact with humans in disturbed forests. The cat is now assessed as near threatened on a global scale.
The marbled cat's plight is further compounded by the spectre of climate change. Altered rainfall patterns and shifting temperatures could disrupt the delicate balance of its ecosystem, affecting both its prey availability and its ability to navigate its habitat. These changes could tip the scales against this already vulnerable feline.
Furthermore, the illegal wildlife trade poses a significant threat. Poaching, driven by demand from local and international markets, poses a dire risk to the cat's survival. The marbled cat's captivating appearance has made it a target for those seeking exotic pets or valuable pelts.
Employing tech based solution
In the face of these challenges, conservationists are working tirelessly to shed light on the marbled cat's plight and secure its future. Efforts are underway to raise awareness about this lesser-known species and its role in maintaining the health of its ecosystem. These initiatives extend to protecting the precious forests it inhabits and combating the illegal wildlife trade that endangers its existence.
Research plays a crucial role in conservation. Understanding the marbled cat's behaviour, habitat requirements, and interactions with its environment is essential for crafting effective conservation strategies. Camera traps, satellite tracking, and community engagement are all tools that conservationists employ to better comprehend the marbled cat's ecology and tailor interventions accordingly.
The marbled cat's story is one of intrigue and fragility. It serves as a stark reminder that the intricate web of life on our planet is vulnerable, interconnected, and deserving of our protection. While charismatic megafauna often steals the spotlight, it is the lesser-known species like the marbled cat that contribute immeasurably to the health and resilience of ecosystems.
As we continue to explore the depths of our planet's wild places, let us keep in mind the marbled cat's enigmatic existence. It beckons us to consider the broader implications of our actions and the responsibilities we hold as stewards of the natural world. By joining forces in the pursuit of conservation, we can ensure that the marbled cat's shadows continue to dance amidst the forest canopy — a ray of hope for the wild and the extraordinary.