Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
New UA Center to Help Wild Cats Worldwide
Dedicated to studying and protecting the world's wild cats, the UA Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center is the latest addition to the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment, which is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Of the 36 species of wild cats that roam the jungles, deserts, mountains and everything in between, 23 (or subspecies of them) are listed as vulnerable, threatened or endangered.
Understanding and conserving wild cats, while promoting vibrant human-wildlife communities, is the mission of the UA Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center.
"Wild cats are cool and beautiful, but more importantly, they are absolutely critical to the functioning of the Earth's ecosystems. Cats are top predators, even the small ones. They keep everything in balance," said Lisa Haynes, who founded the center with several colleagues, including Melanie Culver, a world-recognized wild cat geneticist.
"At this point there is no dedicated funding for our work," Haynes said. "Private donations can make a huge difference for the wild cats of the world."
Haynes, who has studied mountain lions, bobcats and other wildlife in the Southwest for many years, has gathered a small but high-profile group of wild cat experts to found the center. Despite their popularity, wild cats all over the world are poorly protected and face threats to their survival, with habitat loss and destruction, poaching, and clashes with human interests such as livestock ranching as the most pressing issues.
The center is set up to combine all aspects necessary for successful and long-term conservation: Field research and documentation are integrated with outreach and education efforts.
"We work with local communities to get them involved through citizen science," Haynes said. "We need scientific research and data to design effective protection plans, but conservation happens on the society level."
"All around the world, wild cats are in conflict with animals people raise for food or care about," she said. "Therefore, conflict resolution is one of our main goals."
"One of our graduate students, Aletris Neils, is demonstrating the center's holistic model in Namibia. She is studying the caracal, a bobcat-sized cat. In addition to her scientific research, she is working with livestock growers to reduce conflicts, and she is teaching in local schools. She is co-creating a program known as Project Wild C.A.T., which stands for Cats And Teaching, where cat research projects are incorporated into school curricula."
"We have to make sure that local people benefit from wild cats," Haynes added. "We are planning to team up with other units on campus, especially in the humanities, anthropology and engineering to look into social and technological solutions."
Research at the center aims at answering scientific management questions globally and locally.
Haynes stressed the importance of including citizens in ongoing science projects such as the Backyard Bobcats project, which invites Tucson area residents to upload their pictures of bobcats via the center's photo contribution website.
"We use those photos to get a better idea of how many bobcats live in Tucson and how they're distributed," Haynes said. "These local projects provide us with knowledge that feeds into the larger-scale, international projects on the rare, endangered or little known cats of the world. Most importantly, they encourage citizens to become interested in wild cats."
While most people are familiar with the magnificent big cats they see in zoos, the majority of the cat family (Felidae) is comprised of small cats many people have never heard about. Even researchers know little about their lifestyle, habitat and behavior.
Consequently, the conservation of the little known, small-to-medium sized cats is one of the Wild Cat Center's main goals.
"Some of these species may disappear before anyone ever has a chance to study them," Haynes said. "For example the Borneo Bay cat, the Andean cat and the flat-headed cat. We know almost nothing about those cats."
Resembling a large house cat in size and body, the Andean cat sports a dense greyish fur and a ringed tail. Only very recently, Jim Sanderson, an international expert who dedicated his career to the conservation of small wild cats and is one of the center's co-founders, was the first to photograph this critter in its natural habitat.
"Because their distribution is very small, this cat was barely known," Haynes said. "They are vulnerable to global climate change because they depend on a Chinchilla-like mountain rodent called viscacha as one of their main food sources. As their habitat warms up, glaciers melt and the alpine vegetation starts to dry out, the viscacha is affected. The cats and their prey already live in the highest elevations in the Andes. As it gets warmer, there is no opportunity for them to move to a different habitat."
"Another issue – and this is indicative of what is happening around the world – is that local people are starting to kill viscachas for food. That has nothing to do with global warming, but when you have a cat with a very limited range that puts it at much higher risk."
"Many of the small wild cat species were described by Victorian and Edwardian explorers who went out and collected them, and that was the only knowledge we had. There may be one or two specimens in a museum and that's it. In some cases, we know more about extinct Pleistocene fauna than about some of our present wildlife."
Haynes pointed at the sand cat as another example that illustrates the situation of small wild cats worldwide and is in desperate need of study.
"There are some records in North Africa, Saudi Arabia and the desert areas of central Asia, but nobody really knows where they live."
The center will serve not only as a hub for research and conservation, but also to train the next generation of conservation scientists by attracting students to work on projects all over the world
In one such project, one of Sanderson's students from Thailand, soon to join the center as a graduate student, is highly dedicated to studying and saving the fishing cat, a little known cat of Southeast Asia at great risk from rapid habitat loss due to shrimp farms and palm oil plantations.
"In this and other cases, even the decisions we make here the U.S. affect wild cats," Haynes said. "When we eat farmed shrimp and buy products like cookies, crackers, and soap with palm oil ingredients, we are impacting wild cats."
"One of the key aspects of our mission," she added, "is that these international and U.S. students are coming together here at the UA under one umbrella. In this setting they can support each other, share their experiences and take the center's support system with them when they go back into the hard trials of wild cat conservation in their home countries."
Currently the center rests on various projects led by researchers and graduate students, including campaigns to protect the Scottish wildcat in Scotland, the Pallas cat in Russia and "Team Tiger," one of the center's international collaborations with an NGO.
Spearheaded by Ashwin Naidu, a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment and a co-founder of the center, Team Tiger is an effort to support tiger conservation in Hyderabad, India, Naidu's hometown.
"We work with forest department officials and locals to make them proud of their landscape and to help protect tigers, leopards and other carnivores in the area," Naidu said. "The UA Wild Cat Center has supported those efforts with used equipment like remotely triggered cameras. Our volunteers in India are really excited about using this equipment and get involved in surveying wild cats right where they live."
"Our goal is to generate enough evidence of elusive cats believed to live in certain areas that are currently only weakly protected or not protected at all, so that those areas can be considered for stronger protection."
For his doctoral research project here in Arizona, Naidu uses camera trap detection, GPS-collar radio-tracking and scat DNA analysis to track mountain lions in the Kofa National Refuge in southwest Arizona. His research aims at finding out how many mountain lions roam the area and what prey they hunt the most, to help officials manage populations of endangered bighorn sheep.
According to Haynes, cats are of concern worldwide. Even those species whose threat level has been classified as ‘of least concern' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, are in danger in some areas.
"It's all relative to the ones that are of most concern – threatened, endangered or critically endangered. That doesn't mean we should just relax. However, the excitement generated by these wild, mysterious and beautiful creatures and the energy and enthusiasm of our students gives me a huge amount of hope."