African golden cats are mysterious, understudied, and threatened by the logging industry and the bushmeat trade—but recent research provides the first evidence that sustainable business practices really can go a long way towards addressing both of these problems and keeping forests healthy for cats and other wildlife.

The beautiful African golden cat (Caracal aurata) is the only African feline which dwells deep within the dark forest and is completely reliant on woodland habitat to survive. Endemic to equatorial western and central Africa, they are roughly the size of a small dog (14 kg), and like many of their felid relatives they are notoriously shy—making the study of African golden cats nearly as mystifying as researching unicorns. Until recently nobody was quite certain of their population size or how quickly that population may be declining.

What is known is that the logging industry regularly removes huge swaths of the African rainforest, while the illegal bushmeat trade indiscriminately poaches any wildlife that falls into a hunter’s snares or scope. The combined effects of rapid habitat loss and subsistence hunting almost certainly threaten African golden cat populations, and so a team of researchers from the University of Kwazulu-Natal and the organisation Panthera launched one of the first systemic studies to really take stock of this hidden woodland treasure and establish baseline information.

Previous African golden cat population estimates were very rough and relied entirely on indirect evidence, such as scat or tracks or reports from local villagers. But with the dawn of an exciting new technology—remote-trigged camera traps—it is now possible to stealthily observe these wary felines and get a much clearer picture of their density and abundance.

The researchers set up hundreds of camera traps across a variety of habitats in Gabon: in the immediate outskirts of villages, in areas designated for logging, and in woodland reserves virtually untouched by human activity.

They expected that the reserved forests would have the highest population of African golden cats, but the researchers also predicted that logging concessions under the management of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) would support a comparatively higher population of golden cats than logging concessions without FSC certification.

In order to be FSC-certified a logging concession must follow strict sustainability guidelines such as minimising structural damage to the surrounding forest and avoiding fruiting trees, and (crucially) enforcing anti-poaching regulations to crack down on the bushmeat trade. The researchers hoped that these key differences in management would allow African golden cats to survive even within human-utilised areas.

The research team captured hundreds of nocturnal shots of African golden cats throughout Gabon, furtively creeping past the camera traps on their nightly rounds. Each cat has a unique spot pattern on its coat which can be used to tell them apart, and each image in the study was independently examined by three different feline-identification experts to identify when the photos were of the same individual. Using advanced techniques in modelling and spatial analysis, the team applied their findings to estimate golden cat density at each site.

© Laila Bahaa-El-Din/Panthera

© Laila Bahaa-El-Din/Panthera

The scientists found that African golden cats had much lower densities where there was high human activity and became virtually impossible to find near villages. Unsurprisingly, they also found the highest densities of cats in the undisturbed woods in which there was no evidence of logging or hunting.

What was illuminating, however, was that the logging concession with FSC certification did in fact have significantly higher golden cat densities than non-FSC areas. The regulations put in place by the FSC appeared to be effective as the researchers found little to no evidence of poaching in that area.

Also interesting was that the density projection for African golden cats within the undisturbed areas was a bit higher than the researchers had anticipated, considering the species was anecdotally rumoured to be ‘naturally rare.’ In fact, their data indicated that in the absence of human activities golden cats may not be as ‘naturally rare’ as was previously believed—a key distinction, since it’s easier for a declining population to struggle unnoticed if the species is assumed to be normally scarce anyway.

African golden cats may be perceived as rare because they are particularly susceptible to snare traps, essentially extirpating them from areas near human settlements. In fact the very direct and immediate consequences of the bushmeat trade make it arguably a greater threat to African golden cat survival than even the habitat loss resulting from logging.

The good news from this study is that African golden cats do seem to be adaptable enough to survive in logged areas (although not as well as in unlogged areas) as long as the area is well-managed and a ban on the bushmeat trade is enforced. Far more than just a “green” marketing strategy, FSC certification truly does seem to make a difference for the survival of these cats. Unfortunately, in the area considered the main stronghold of the African golden cat population (the Congo Basin), only 9% of logging concessions are FSC-certified.

The researchers emphasise that while maintaining the intact forests are crucial to protecting a strong “reserve” population of cats which can replenish populations in more threatened areas, employing sustainable practices in the areas that are utilised for human activities is just as important for species survival. The authors of the study also note that FSC certification has been shown to protect other forest-dwelling species of conservation concern, such as great apes, and that golden cats can be considered a good indicator of the overall health of the African forest ecosystem.

A responsible combination of safeguarded woodland reserves and well-managed FSC logging concessions may be able to both serve human needs and preserve the incredible and unique species which rely on African forest habitat, but it is undeniable that swift action is needed to develop widespread sustainable practices and turn this cautiously hopeful theory into a policy-based reality.

There is gold in the woods of Africa in the form of its lithe felines and other amazing endemic species, but only wise management can ensure these treasures survive to slink through the shadows of the rainforest for years to come.

Reference

Bahaa-el-din, L. et. al. (2016) Effects of human land-use on Africa’s only forest-dependent felid: the African golden cat Caracal aurata. Biological Conservation 199: 1-9. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2016.04.013

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