Saturday, August 22, 2015

[Mammalogy • 2015] The African Golden Cat Caracal aurata: Africa’s Least-known Felid

Fig. 1. Camera trap photographs of (clockwise from bottom left): golden, reddish-brown, grey and black (melanistic) African golden cats. Goldenand reddish-brown are usually considered as one morph (golden/reddish-brown). The photographs of golden and reddish-brown individuals demon-strate the considerable variation within the golden/reddish-brown morph.
Fig. 2. Camera trap photographs of African golden cats from central Gabon (a–c), showing the range of types and extent of spotting that occur inindividuals from the west of the species’ geographic range. Spots are, typically, restricted to the belly and inner legs of golden cats from Kibale, SWUganda, (d) and from other sites east of the Congo River.

The African golden cat Caracal aurata is endemic to tropical Africa. It is one of the world's least-studied felids and is considered rare in most of its geographic range. The status of the African golden cat in the wild has never been rigorously assessed, but the species is increasingly threatened by habitat degradation, loss and fragmentation, and by unsustainable hunting.
We describe the African golden cat and review its taxonomy, distribution, ecology, behaviour, threats and conservation status. The information presented here is based on the literature and on new data from the first two intensive field studies on the species (underway in Gabon and Uganda).
The golden cat is phenotypically variable. Within the two main colour morphs, golden/reddish-brown and grey, there is wide variation and intergradation. Both of these morphs occur throughout the species' range. Melanistic and chocolate-brown morphs also occur but are uncommon.
Recent genetic analysis indicates that the golden cat is closely related to the caracal Caracal caracal, and it has, therefore, been changed from the genus Profelis to Caracal.
The golden cat is predominantly terrestrial and cathemeral. Its diet consists mainly of rodents and small ungulates.
Field studies in Gabon and Uganda have established that golden cats can be locally common. They are prone to capture by wire snares, however, and are absent in forests hunted at commercial scales.
Species-focused camera trap surveys are effective for collecting distribution, abundance, population structure, ecological and behavioural data on golden cats.

Keywords: bushmeat; camera trap; conservation; deforestation; Profelis

The African golden cat Caracal aurata (hereafter referred to as ‘golden cat’) is a medium-sized felid endemic to tropical Africa, with a confirmed historic distribution from SW Senegal in the west to at least central Kenya in the east (Ray & Butynski 2013). It is typically the second largest carnivore present within this habitat (Bahaa-el-din et al. 2011), though in areas where leopards Panthera pardus have been extirpated, the golden cat is now the ‘top carnivore’ (e.g. in Kibale National Park, SW Uganda; Mills et al. 2012). The golden cat is one of the least-known carnivores in Africa (Ray et al. 2005), and one of the least-studied felids worldwide (Brodie 2009). This species is a forest specialist and is, therefore, vulnerable to forest degradation, loss and fragmentation (Nowell & Jackson 1996). The golden cat is also threatened by unsustainable hunting for bushmeat (Nowell & Jackson 1996, Robinson & Bennett 2000).

Despite these threats, there has been no detailed field research on golden cats until recently. The advent of motion-activated camera traps has resulted in several recent publications on golden cats based on opportunistic camera trap photographs, as well as more species-focused studies (e.g. Aronsen 2010, Bahaa-el-din et al. 2011, Sheil 2011, Mills et al. 2012, Mugerwa et al. 2013, Sheil & Mugerwa 2013).

We aim to collate information about the golden cat in order to identify key knowledge gaps, thereby creating a foundation for future research that will guide conservation planning for this species. We build on the recently published species account in the Mammals of Africa (Ray & Butynski 2013) by providing additional information including new field data from Gabon and Uganda. We describe the golden cat and review its taxonomy, habitat, distribution, ecology, behaviour, reproduction, threats, conservation status, and present opportunities for research and for the implementation of evidence-based conservation measures.


Fig. 1. Camera trap photographs of (clockwise from bottom left): golden, reddish-brown, grey and black (melanistic) African golden cats. Goldenand reddish-brown are usually considered as one morph (golden/reddish-brown). The photographs of golden and reddish-brown individuals demon-strate the considerable variation within the golden/reddish-brown morph.
African golden cat with a snare wound around its lower stomach. Many cats are not so lucky to escape.
Photo: David Mills/ Panthera

 Camera trap photographs of snare-wounded African golden cats. (a) Back right leg is severed (central Gabon).  

After three years of studying the African Golden Cat Caracal aurata, Laila Bahaa-el-din finally came face to face with one.
Photo: Laila Bahaa-el-din/ Panthera |

female African Golden Cat Caracal aurata in the forest of Gabon
Photo: Laila Bahaa-el-din |

Camera trapping synthesis and survey design recommendations
The African golden cat is the focus of our current camera trap studies in Gabon and Uganda. These studies demonstrate that camera trapping can produce adequate data to assess golden cat distribution, abundance, ecology, behaviour and threats. Camera trapping shows the golden cat to be cathemeral, rather than crepuscular or nocturnal as stated in the literature. Most significantly, camera traps detected golden cats more frequently than expected given the low number of sightings, and preliminary identification of individuals suggests that, in some areas, they may be more abundant than previously thought.

Based on the height of golden cats and their trail use patterns, we recommend that cameras be placed c. 25 cm above the ground and 1.5–2.0 m from the edge of abandoned logging roads, skidder tracks and large game trails, facing the track. This protocol appears to maximize photo-captures of golden cats. Spacing of 600–800 m between trapping stations will ensure recaptures of females at several stations, which may be desirable if density estimation is an aim. It is possible to counteract the small sample area created by such tight camera spacing by placing a subset of the cameras farther apart, to widen the survey area. Analysis of data from differently spaced camera traps has been made possible through the development of spatially explicit capture–recapture models (Borchers & Efford 2008). These models, however, require adequate movement data, both for males and females, through recaptures at different sites. For individual identification, it is advisable to use white-flash cameras that produce clear photographs, and to set the cameras to take several consecutive photographs.

Conservation and future research
The literature review and field studies presented here are intended to guide conservation planning for the golden cat. Use of wire snares can have significant direct and indirect impacts on golden cat populations and has caused extirpation from some areas. Tightening and enforcement of hunting regulations, particularly snaring bans, should be encouraged.

The presence of golden cats in active logging concessions is encouraging and highlights the importance of these areas for the conservation of the species. Requiring logging concessions to be certified helps to secure the conservation value of these areas. Considering that 29% of the forest area in West and Central Africa is designated for extraction while just 16% is designated for conservation (Anonymous 2010), governments should enforce strict regulations for the logging industry so that environmental degradation is minimized in and around exploited areas during and after extraction.

Our camera trap surveys were designed to assess golden cat occurrence and abundance within human land-use areas. Valuable additions to this work would be to conduct camera trap surveys in areas where occurrence is uncertain and to monitor sites in changing landscapes to assess population trends. As studies of the golden cat become more widespread, we encourage and invite collaboration to build a landscape-scale assessment of this little-known species.

Bahaa-el-din, L. Henschel, P. Butyinski, T M. Macdonald, D W. Mills, D. Slotow, R & Hunter, L. 2015. The African Golden Cat Caracal aurata: Africa’s Least-known Felid.
Mammal Review. 63-77. DOI: 10.1111/mam.12033

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