Sat, Sep 27, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Leopard cat an asset for Taiwan

By Liu Ka-shiang 劉克襄

For many years, the most serious damage to forests in the nation has been caused by land development in low-altitude mountain areas.

At the same time, people’s understanding of the animals and plants that inhabit such environments is far from complete, and the foothills are seldom a focus for ecological conservation.

Although schoolchildren love nature, they are unlikely to form a deep identification with low-mountain ecology as they grow up.

The nostalgia that many people born in the 1950s and 1960s feel for such rural zones has little influence on the following generations, so they are unlikely to establish a common set of values in this regard.

One thing to be happy about is that leopard cats have been in the public eye, providing a new opportunity to take a good look at the aesthetics of not-so-remote mountain areas and think seriously about how town and countryside relate.

Recent years have seen a rapid decline in the nation’s leopard cat population and it looks as though they might be following cloud leopards on the path to extinction.

This threat is leading people to pay more attention to the significance of accessible mountains and ask what other animals exist on farmland close to the foothills.

People are curious about what little temples are dotted throughout the forest, what issues of land ethics might emerge among the terraced fields, and what special features mountain foothills in different regions might have.

People’s vague understanding of the lush foothills makes the species that live in them all the more precious.

The leopard cat is a fine example. Like the magic cat Totoro, but of the real world, it is like a glistening gem embedded in the hillside belts.

The stealthy wanderings of the leopard cat make people all the more curious about it.

Leopard cat sightings used to be quite common, which shows that the environment in the past was suitable for them.

These days it is much harder to spot one, and the reason so many leopard cats have disappeared is that vast tracts of land have been developed.

When one or two of the creatures are found lying dead on the road after having been hit by a vehicle, it does not mean that there are plenty of them left.

Rather, it should serve as a warning that human presence is depriving them of their right to survival.

On the other hand, the continued existence of a few leopard cats shows how lucky Taiwanese are to still be able to find 100 or more hectares of uninterrupted woodland.

These days, most leopard cats live in small areas of second-growth forest in the vicinity of cultivated land.

This is precisely the kind of environment that is most frequently used for building factories or roads, fragmenting animal populations and making it hard for them to meet, mate and breed.

When only 20 or 30 hectares of unbroken forest is left, a few partridges or voles may still be wandering around, but leopard cats, which prowl over a wide territory, cannot possibly move around as freely as they used to in such a confined space, and it may become impossible for them to produce young.

It is indeed a blessing to find signs of leopard cats. It means that nature is still in harmony with civilization.

A mountain forest without leopard cats is one that has lost its heart. It is a lonely place.

The same is true of Formosan masked civets and masked palm civets. They are all part of the “Totoro family” — our mammalian neighbors in the nearby mountains.

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