- HB Length: 45-75 cm (18-29″)
- Tail Length: 19-31 cm (7.4-12″)
- Height: Approx 41 cm (16″)
- Weight: 1.7-7 kg (4-15 lbs)
The most widespread of all small Asian felids, Leopard Cats Prionailurus bengalensis are about the size of a domestic cat, but rather long in the legs. They vary widely in size and appearance across their range. Colouration ranges from pale tawny, to yellow, red or grey above, with the underparts white, and spotted. Black rosettes cover the sides of the body, with solid spots running down the legs and the tail. There are usually four black stripes running down the forehead to the nape, breaking up into short bands and elongate spots on the shoulders. Often there is one stripe running the length of the body. The length of the fur is variable according to their habitat, with those cats in the most northern part having longer, thicker coats than the southern subspecies.
The relatively small head has a short, narrow muzzle, a white chin, and two narrow, black cheek stripes enclosing a white area. Two white and four black stripes run up from the inner corners of the eyes towards the ears. The irises are a deep, golden brown to greyish, and the long, rounded ears are black on the outside, with a white central spot. The tail is spotted above with a few indistinct spotted rings near the buff coloured tip.
Also known as Bengal Cats or Amur Cats, Leopard Cats are found in 21 Asian countries, from southern India north to the Russian Far East and down though tropical southeast Asia. The smallest subspecies are found in the jungles of the Philippines, with the largest cats being found in the northern regions. They inhabit forests and jungles in both low country and in hilly, even mountainous areas up to 3,254 metres, as well as scrub, semi-desert, secondary vegetation and agricultural areas. In northeastern Asia they are often found in pine forests, favouring the more open stretches that have plenty of fallen trunks. They avoid open grassland and steppes, but are willing to live near humans if not persecuted. On Borneo, they can be found in the great caves, scavenging swiftlets as the baby birds fall from their nests on the walls.
One smaller, darker subspecies is the only wild feline in Japan, and is found only on Iriomote Island. The Iriomote Cat Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis was once thought to be a separate species, but molecular data indicates they are a subspecies of the wide ranging Leopard Cat. Animals on Tsushima Island off the Korean Peninsula, called the Tsushima Cat, are also now considered subspecies.
In the deep forests of Thailand, radio telemetry studies determined home range size to be 2.5 – 5.4 km2, with male ranges enclosing that of several females. They utilize habitat uniformly, with a marginal preference for riverine habitat and roads. The highest levels of activity took place during the wet season, with much lower levels in the dry season. Marked differences in home range sizes, activity and prey selection were found in drier mixed habitat.
Other studies have revealed home range sizes averaging 12.7 km2 in a Thailand protected area and 3.5 km2 on the island of Borneo.
Male ranges generally overlap numerous smaller female ranges. Overlap between same-sex adults is considerable at the edge of their ranges but minimal in the core territory. Density estimates vary from 34 cats/100 km2 on Iriomote Island to 37.5/100 km2 in Sabah, Malaysia.
Active at night, dawn and dusk, they hunt both on the ground and in the trees. Most of their hunting is done at night, but their activity levels vary widely depending on the habitat. Like most wild cats, they swim very well and are able to colonize close off-shore islands. Showing little aversion to human presence, Leopard Cats can frequently be found close to villages, and have been kept as rodent control agents by villagers. They are also known to raid domestic poultry. Legend says they catch birds by dropping on them from above, and like most small cats they are very agile in the trees.
In Borneo Leopard Cats have been found preying on the high density of rats in palm oil plantations but retired to forest fragments to sleep and breed.
This wide ranging species has variable breeding seasons. Leopard Cats from the northern part of their range bear their young in May, but in warmer southern parts kittens have been found at all times of the year. After a gestation of 65 – 70 days, one to four, usually two or three, young are born in a hollow tree, rocky crevice or burrow. Weight at birth is around 80 grams; their eyes open in 5 – 15 days. Sexual maturity is reached around 8-12 months. Captive animals have been known to live over 15 years.
Leopard Cats are more tolerant of disturbed areas than other small Asian felids, and can be found in human-modified habitats with cover such as palm-oil plantations, secondary forest and farmland.
Survival rates of 92% have been recorded in a protected area with little human disturbance compared to 53-82% in areas with greater human activity. In some tropical areas they are taken for food, and they are captured for the pet trade throughout their range. Hybridization with feral domestic cats has been reported but is not considered a significant threat.
Fairly successful in the wild because of their ability to adapt, Leopard Cats are heavily persecuted for the fur trade in their temperate range. Japan is the major cat fur consumer in Asia, and Leopard Cat skins are their primary choice, importing as many as 50,000 skins per year.
At least 150,000 are killed annually in China for the fur trade, and the impacts of such a continual harvest are unknown. CITES has the species listed on Appendix 1, but the Chinese Government has proposed their legal yearly quota of Leopard Cat skins be increased by 500%, as they view these cats as a natural resource to obtain revenue. There have been no field studies done on these cats in China, and their population density is unknown.
Photo © Alex Sliwa
Range Map IUCN Red List (2008)