The commercial value of products coming from rarer wildlife species has increased because of their growing demand among the middle class across Asia. The profitability of wildlife trade is high enough to make it the second largest direct threat, after habitat destruction, to the survival of many species, reveals a new study on illegal trade in rare small cat species along the Indo-Myanmar border.

The paper, focusing on illegal trade in Asiatic golden cats and other small felids, suggests that since the trade in body parts of big cats such as tigers, leopards and snow leopards has become more challenging due to increased international regulatory policies, the pressure on other, smaller felid species has increased. Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa and N. diardi), Asiatic golden cats (Catopuma temminckii) and marbled cats (Pardofelis marmorata) are among those species being substituted for their larger kin, as trade in their parts has increased across Myanmar, India, China, Malaysia and Thailand.

Northeast India, which is a part of the biodiversity-rich Indo-Burma hotspot, is home to almost 10 species of wild cats including small cats like the Asiatic golden cat, leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), marbled cat and fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus). These cats are found in most of the states in northeast India such as Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, etc.

During the winter of 2022, researcher, wildlife biologist and the lead author of the paper, Amit Kumar Bal, was having a casual conversation with some people living in the vicinity of Murlen National Park in Champhai district of Mizoram. Bal has been working as a researcher for the last few years in Murlen, which falls near the border of Mizoram and Myanmar.

During the conversation, he learnt about an Asiatic golden cat being killed by a local hunter along the border of Murlen on November 30, 2022. Bal says that even though the primary goal of the hunter was to hunt a wild boar or a deer for bushmeat, encountering the cat, they realised that there is an opportunity to earn some easy money by selling the cat’s pelt, skull, bones, claws and teeth.

Trade of small cats

Bal, along with fellow researchers Sushanto Gouda and Anthony J. Giordano, wrote about their findings in the paper, “The price of gold? A note on the illegal trade in Asiatic golden cats and other small felids between Mizoram (India) and Myanmar”, this year. While the poaching of big cats such as tigers and leopards, for their body parts, in India, is common knowledge, this paper gives an insight into the trade of their smaller family members, about which not much information is available because of the elusive nature of the animals.

Elaborating on the hunting and illegal trade of small cats, the paper recounts a conversation that Bal had with a local hunter in Murlen. “Upon encountering an Asiatic golden cat, the hunter knew there was an opportunity to ‘get easy money’ by selling the cat’s valuable pelt, as well [as] its skull, bones, claws, and teeth,” details the paper, adding that someone else from the community killed a golden cat in August of 2022 and had already sold it to a buyer in Myanmar.

The rise in demand for the body parts of small cats such as bones, skulls and claws has encouraged illegal trade in recent times. The unmanned border areas along the Myanmar border and thick forest cover along the river Tiau, which divides Mizoram and Myanmar, have likely contributed to ease of access, trade, and a general increase in poaching in this part of India, the paper notes.

“Another hunter from the group we originally spoke with claimed to have killed both a marbled cat and a leopard cat in MNP [Murlen National Park] in early 2019. These cats were reportedly killed with a firearm (a single-barrel breech loading 12-bore rifle) and we were told their body parts were traded to Myanmar,” the paper details.

Speaking to Mongabay-India, Bal said that small carnivores such as the marbled cat, golden cat, and leopard cat are opportunistically killed only for their illegal black-market value in Myanmar. The hunting practice usually consists of the hunter waiting in a machan, a makeshift platform made of tree branches set on a relatively high tree, where a hunter can sit from evening to late at night waiting for quarry.

The pelts, skulls, teeth, and bones of felids are increasingly traded for their ornamental and medicinal value, and Myanmar appears to play a central role in this illegal trade, Bal said.

The Champhai district of Mizoram state, where Murlen National Park falls, has recently emerged as a hotspot of transboundary trading in wildlife and other contraband items. According to a report by Mongabay-India, 468 species of exotic wildlife, including tortoises, snakes, beavers and a wild cat, were seized in Champhai in May 2022.

A house hoarding to promote wildlife awareness. Credit: Nabarun Guha via Mongabay.

Threat towards small cats

Bal claims that since it is becoming increasingly difficult to hunt big cats, smugglers are now targeting small cats.

“As it is becoming challenging to kill big cats like tigers, leopards and snow leopards due to an increase in international relations, hunters are now turning their sight towards smaller felids,” said Bal. Trade of these animals happens not just in India but across Southeast Asian countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand etc. “Currently golden cats and marbled cats enjoy protection as Scheduled I species under Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. However, the status and viability of these small cats in the wild in India is still unclear.”

Speaking on the elusive nature of these small cat species, Ivy Farheen Hussain, project officer at Aaranyak told Mongabay-India, “These small cats are so elusive that they are sighted rarely. They are also very sensitive about their habitat. Even micro changes in their habitat disturb them very much. This is the major reason why these animals are so elusive. So, if their habitat is affected, we will know that it will have an impact on their population as well.” Aaranyak is a non-government organisation working on the conservation of biodiversity in northeast India.

A Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) official on the condition of anonymity said, “Trade of small cats happens rarely. In the past, we have seized specimens of leopard cat, civet cat and fishing cats. In the last five years, we haven’t found any instance of hunting of small cats. However, bones and pelts of small cats being passed off as tigers and leopards happen sometimes as many of the buyers are not very smart.”

Steps to reduce hunting

The paper notes that poverty and high levels of corruption in the region have further motivated local people to engage in this illicit trade and that socioeconomic development and positive engagement of rural communities in wildlife conservation approaches are needed to mitigate illegal trade in the region.

According to Bal, the people in Murlen have started becoming aware of the perils of hunting. The killing of small cats in the forest has reduced this year.

He is trying to raise awareness among the villagers in MNP regarding the conservation of small cats. “We put hoardings in the marketplaces in these villages to make them aware of the importance of saving these animals. We put up these hoardings mostly in Mizo so that they can reach most people. We also take the help of the Young Mizo Association, the most powerful NGO in Mizoram, to create awareness,” he said.

The acknowledgment of the socioeconomic importance of hunting to local livelihoods, the positive engagement of rural communities, the recruitment of local people in participation and the support for diverse, alternative livelihood-based activities are likely to be more welcomed approaches in this wildlife and biodiversity hotspot, the paper suggests.

The efforts of Bal, who after spending more than three years in Murlen has developed a unique bond with the place and its people, are bearing fruit. “This year, there has been no killing of small cats so far. I told them that these cats are rare and you should be proud that they are found in your backyard. One hunter has sold his gun and said that he wants to engage in farming. There are others who have opened homestays for tourists and are also working as guides. They have understood that in order for tourists to come, they need to conserve the rich fauna in this forest,” Bal says.

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