Legend has it a cat has nine lives. But how many shades of colours can a cat have? What if I tell you such a wild feline does, in fact, exist in our forests?
Today, we celebrate a mid-sized forest cat called the golden cat of Asia.
As the name implies, this enigmatic cat comes in a standard orange-gold coat.
There are five other coat colours that the cat can develop. These colours, we call them morph, are strikingly different from one another.
So baffling were the differences that scientists, upon the first encounter, had thought there were multiple species instead of one!
The Asiatic golden cat roams the forests of South and Southeast Asia. It lives in Bangladesh.
It is so rare that valid records in the country can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Today, we look into these records and highlight a spectacular discovery.
Recently, for the first time, a systematic camera-trapping survey in Sylhet division of Bangladesh has discovered the Asian golden cat in the forest reserves of Habiganj and Moulvibazar districts.
These mixed-evergreen, stream-fed forest stands are trans-border, connected to the formidable Tripura Hills of India.
The biologically uncharted region forms the western tip of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot where concerted researches are very few.
Northeast Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative (NBCCI), a carnivore-research group formed by early-career zoologists of Bangladesh, made the discovery among many other spectacular findings.
The novel and non-invasive camera-trap technology is globally applied to monitor terrestrial mammals. The technique has gained popularity in Bangladesh only in recent years.
The Asian golden cat (Catopuma temminckii), a medium-sized feline, is native to the northeastern forests of the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and southern China.
At a head-to-body length, the cat stays between 66 cm and 105 cm with a 40 to 57 cm long tail. It stands 56 cm tall at shoulder height.
Forests of Sylhet and Chattogram are reportedly considered as golden cat range.
However, the species is extremely rare. There are less than 10 reported occurrences of the cat in the country.
Eminent biologist Dr Reza Khan first collected a golden cat skin in 1982 from the Hill Tracts of Chattogram. The only existing study on the golden cats of Bangladesh was carried out by Dr Monirul H Khan, professor of zoology, Jahangirnagar University.
The 2008 work discussed bushmeat hunting in the Hill Tracts as a threat to the cat.
Ronald Halder, a bird-watcher, also had a brief encounter with the cat while on a bird-photography trip in Bandarban district.
Nearly a decade later, Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA), a conservation NGO, camera-trapped the species from Sangu-Matamuhuri reserve forests.
In Sylhet division, there are only a couple of records. In 2009, a melanistic golden cat was killed purportedly as a 'black panther' in a village of Sylhet district bordering Meghalaya, India.
In 2017, another study captured the species from the forests of Moulvibazar.
In fact, forests of this trans-border region are characteristically similar, and should have golden cats in each of them, experts say.
Due to the security of the species and this reason, the exact location of the discovery has not been shared in the report.
Other than the regular golden coat colour, there are five other coat morphs of the golden cat. So far, the nominal golden, grey, and melanistic morphs are recorded in Bangladesh.
This is the first discovery of cinnamon (reddish dark brown) morph in the country.
The Asian golden cat is the only polymorphic wild cat of Asia — the fact came into the spotlight only in 2019 from a camera-trapping study in Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, India that had recorded six morphs in a single forest.
The cat, inflicted by a myriad of threats, is assessed as globally Near Threatened.
The golden cat is declared Vulnerable in the 2015 threat assessment of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh.
Its possible extent of occurrence is less than 2000 km2 in the country. In addition to the habitat loss, poaching for skin and fur is a serious threat to the species.
Unlike other smaller cats, the golden cat is diurnal. According to a study carried out in north-central Thailand in 2005, at least 30 km2 is required for a single individual.
However, the species is adaptable to diverse habitats including degraded forests.
The survey of NBCCI has also revealed that the region has a diverse and distinct community of terrestrial mammals.
The study found more than 10 carnivore mammals, and a rich prey assemblage including the brush-tailed porcupine, a species that is poorly studied across its range, and first-time recorded in northeastern region.
These spectacular discoveries, thus, highlights the importance of the trans-border forests of Habiganj and Moulvibazar as forest complexes where tea gardens play a crucial role as a wildlife corridor.
Other than being ignored, and treated as host for artificial safari parks, forests of Habiganj and Moulvibazar, can be the model of forest and wildlife conservation in Bangladesh. They are also ideal candidates to be a trans-border protected area complex.