Photograph courtesy Kashmira KakatiCaught by a camera trap, a leopard prowls under the dense canopy of the Jeypore-Dehing lowland rain forest in the northeast Indian state of Assam (map).
Released in February, the picture was taken during a two-year survey supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The research found seven cat species in a 354-square-mile (570-square-kilometer) range—the highest diversity of cat species yet photographed in a single area.
Wildlife biologist Kashmira Kakati had been studying the gibbons of Jeypore-Dehing and became curious about the predator tracks she kept finding on the ground.
"I said, I need to find out what's there," Kakati told National Geographic News. "Nobody had any clue. People who had been in the forest 30 years didn't know."
With 30 digital camera traps, Kakati captured not only the cats but a number of other rare forest animals between 2007 and 2009. "Even I was surprised by the result," she said. (See related pictures of a rare Chinese wildcat snapped by a camera trap.)
(Related: National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)
Photograph courtesy Kashmira KakatiThe camera-trap pictures include this night shot of a rare clouded leopard, so named for the nimbus-like pattern of its coat.
The clouded leopard is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which means the species faces a high risk of extinction. The cat's population is on the decline, mostly due to loss of habitat from deforestation. (See a picture of rare clouded leopard cubs born at a Virginia zoo.)
In Jeypore-Dehing, the cat is so seldom seen that local villagers don't even have a name for it, Kakati said.
Photograph courtesy Kashmira KakatiSeen in another Jeypore-Dehing camera-trap picture, the leopard cat is a diminutive and distant relative of the better-known spotted predator from which it takes its name.
The species is commonly recorded across its range in Asia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Leopard cats are considered to have generally stable populations, except for a few subspecies that are close to extinction.
Photograph courtesy Kashmira KakatiThe Jeypore-Dehing rain forest also houses the Asiatic golden cat, which is listed as near threatened—but on the verge of becoming vulnerable—by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In addition to the seven cat species, Kakati's camera traps recorded 12 other carnivore species in the Jeypore-Dehing range, including a dhole, or Asiatic wild dog; the Malayan sun bear; and several species of the catlike mammal the civet.
Photograph courtesy Kashmira KakatiThe Jeypore-Dehing range is hemmed in by oil, coal, and logging operations that threaten wildlife, Kakati said. Just 69 square miles (111 square kilometers) of the forest, an area known as the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, is off-limits to development.
In addition, some animals—including the jungle cat pictured above—appear to be migrating to Jeypore-Dehing from adjoining forests to escape severe poaching, Kakati said.
"The range has become a refuge," she said. "Somehow the animals have managed to hold on."
Photograph courtesy Kashmira KakatiThe camera traps recorded about 45 species of mammals—including primates, deer, porcupines, wild pigs, and rodents—that likely serve as prey for the rain forest's carnivores, such as the female tiger pictured above. (Related: "India's Tigers Number Half as Many as Thought.")
Although many cat species are at risk due to poaching for their bones and pelts, people in Jeypore-Dehing don't hunt the cats themselves, Kakati said. But locals do poach the wild deer and pigs, cutting in on carnivores' food sources.
Photograph courtesy Kashmira KakatiThe researchers hope the discovery of so many rare cat species in Jeypore-Dehing, including this threatened marbled cat, will encourage the Indian government to protect a wider portion of the Eastern Himalaya region from development and poaching.
"The entire forest here should be protected as a single conservation landscape, free of disturbance and connected by wildlife corridors between the disjunct sections," Ravi Chellam, of the Wildlife Conservation Society's India Program, said in a statement.
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