Candid cameras catch rare Asian cats

After 3 decades of armed conflict, what remains of Cambodia’s wildlife riches? Plenty, according to a photographic survey begun 2 months ago.

Self-portrait by an Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti). WCS

Marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata). WWF

Biologists from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society trained local Cambodians to set up automatic cameras along suspected tiger trails. They mounted the cameras on trees at a height chosen to pick up these big cats. Triggered as animals cross an infrared beam, the cameras have snapped almost 2,000 images, including birds not previously identified in Cambodia and more than 60 types of large mammals.

Last week, the groups released a few of the photos. They confirm the survival of Indochinese tigers and for the first time, document marbled cats in Cambodia. Kristin Nowell, director of Cat Action Treasury, a wild-cat conservation group based in Los Gatos, Calif., says she was thrilled by the latter finding. This apparently arboreal feline, about the weight of a large house cat, is so rare, she says, that no ecology data or world-population estimates exist.

WWF tiger specialist Judy Mills in Washington, D.C., notes that Cambodia’s tigers may constitute “the last, best Indochinese tiger population in the wild.” Interviews with local hunters, she says, suggest that 700 of the majestic cats may survive there. This would constitute up to half of this tiger’s worldwide population. With word of their apparent abundance out, she now worries, “there’ll be a race between scientists and hunters to see who can get to them first.”

Cambodia’s new wildlife-photo gallery also includes leopards and three other wild cats, eight primates, two species of wild cattle, a wild dog, Asian elephants, and sun bears. A few snapshots depict a more disturbing species, human poachers, notes Andrew Maxwell, chief technical advisor to WWF-Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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