Chance encounter with reclusive golden cat renews calls for Ugandan park protection

Without support from local people, conservation achievements may remain fragile and unsustainable.

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A chance sighting of the reclusive African golden cat may signal wider problems of habitat destruction in Uganda. Douglas Sheil

BOGOR, Indonesia (27 September 2012)_A rare sighting of a mysterious African feline highlights the need to protect one of the cat’s last remaining natural habitats: the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda.

Little is known about the African Golden Cat (Caracal aurata), a forest species classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “near threatened.” However, Douglas Sheil, Director of the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation and Senior Associate with the Center for International Forestry Research was among the lucky few to observe this reclusive felid in the wild, stumbling across it as it fed on a long-tailed mouse.

“An extended daytime observation like this appears to be unique,” Sheil said of his 2009 run-in.

“This species is the largest carnivore in the Bwindi forest, yet we know almost nothing about it,” he said of the cats, which are normally nocturnal.

Encounters like Sheil’s can be seen as important indicators of a well-balanced and functioning ecosystem, because the loss or decline of larger carnivores is indicative of ecological imbalance.

Sadly, in this instance, the signs were less than encouraging. Despite being only 10 meters away from its human observer, the cat appeared to show no fear, choosing to remain eating in the same spot for 5 or 6 minutes before wandering off.

“Many of the people who work in the forest have never seen this shy and secretive animal.”

But this “abnormal” behaviour, Sheil reasons, is hard to interpret as the animal could have been sick. In addition, its reddish brown fur – usually sleek – was mangy grey on its back; however, this could be attributed to moulting.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the greatest threats facing the African Golden Cat include loss of habitat, depleting populations of prey and human traps.

In East Africa, deforestation is particularly acute. While Bwindi itself is a protected national park, an International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) report in 2010 explains how, in 1990, the year before its establishment, 61 percent of its forests were heavily impacted by logging. While most illegal activities have since decreased in the park’s core, due to government and NGO support, some continues today and is driven primarily by subsistence use at the boundaries.

Many of the people who work in the forest have never seen this shy and secretive animal.

A dense human population lives right up to Bwindi’s forest edge, Sheil says. Provisional results of a 2002 housing and population census by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics showed that neighbouring Kisoro District had an average population density of 323 people per square kilometre, up by 48 people a decade earlier. Such a rapid population boom places huge demand on regional natural resources, as cultivation expands and replaces original forest.

In the past, competition over natural resources had sparked conflict between locals and park officials.

Several fires were started in or around Bwindi after its establishment by local residents seeking to deliberately destroy government property. Attacks on park staff and their families were frequent, with many denied the sale of food and membership to “engozi” groups, providers of physical and financial support in times of sickness or death.

In response to the rising tensions, a range of “integrated conservation and development” strategies were implemented, including by CARE International, regarding community conservation and sustainable agriculture.

A camera trap photo of the African golden cat. Panthera Cats

The International Gorilla Conservation Project also has helped promote ecotourism as an alternative source of income generation. While these and other initiatives were adopted to try and make conservation acceptable among nearby communities, including attempts by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to engage more meaningfully with local stakeholders, not everyone will be easily convinced.

Progress towards shifting attitudes is significantly hindered by damage to crops caused by wild animals, either “vermin” (such as baboons, bush pigs and vervet monkeys) or protected species (for example gorillas, buffaloes and elephants). While local governments are supposed to help tackle this problem, they often lack the resources to do so, fuelling resentment among locals.  As animals are better protected their numbers increase and the problem grows.

“In the longer term, the main threat to these forests is people and their hostility to conservation. We need to find ways to encourage local people to support conservation, and ensure it has democratic support,” he said.

“Otherwise, our current conservation achievements will remain not only fragile and likely unsustainable, but a cause of increasing conflict.”

This new publication is part of the research programme on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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Topic(s) :   Wildlife