A little-known rainforest in north-east India could be home to the world’s largest number of wildcat species, with no less than seven species photo-documented by a wildlife biologist at the end of her two-year survey.

Kashmira Kakati’s camera-trap shots reveal that the wildcats share a relatively small, 500 sq.km. patch of rainforest in the Jeypore-Dehing lowlands in Assam, which includes the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.

Among the cats are the elusive and rare clouded leopard ( Neofelis nebulosa), the marbled cat ( Pardofelis marmorata) and the Asian golden cat ( Catopuma temminckii), besides the relatively more widely distributed tiger ( Panthera tigris), the leopard ( Panthera pardus), the leopard cat ( Prionailurus bengalensis), and the jungle cat ( Felis chaus).

“To discover what is, most likely, the maximum number of wild cat species sharing a single area gives us a mere glimpse of what species the Jeypore-Dehing forests hold,” says Jim Sanderson, biologist, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Cat Specialist Group. “That such a place still exists will attract naturalists and scientists alike to make even more discoveries, but only if the Jeypore-Dehing forests receive the protection they so clearly deserve.”

The discovery comes in the backdrop of growing concern among environmentalists over deforestation, poaching, crude oil and coal extraction and mega hydro-electric projects that threaten the ecology of the eastern Himalayas. However, new wildlife species continue to be discovered in this part of the eastern Himalayas — listed as a “biodiversity hotspot” — comprising Bhutan, parts of northeast India and Nepal.

Twelve other carnivore species were also recorded in the Kakati survey, among them the endangered dhole (Asiatic Wild Dog), the Malayan sun bear, binturong, mongoose, otter and civets. And among the 45 mammals documented are six species of primates, deer, porcupine, wild pig and rodents, which are prey for the rainforest carnivores. The discovery is significant in that it points to the importance of protecting less-known patches of wilderness in the country that hold tremendous biodiversity, says Ravi Chellam of the Wildlife Conservation Society-India Program. “It also places enormous emphasis on the need for more structured research.”

Sarala Khaling, regional coordinator of Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) in the eastern Himalayas, says: “It is now time for extractive industries operating in and around the area to [begin] partnering with conservation organisations and local communities to preserve the area’s incredible biodiversity.”

Dr. Kakati’s research was supported by the Assam Forest Department and funded by the CEPF, the Wildlife Conservation Society–India Program and the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, United Kingdom.

Correction

The heading of a report was “Scientist discovers Himalayan wildcat haven” (February 19, 2010), while the third paragraph included the tiger and the leopard in the list of wild cats. A reader said that as the tiger and leopard are known as “big cats”, the heading was incorrect. In response to a request for a clarification, Dr. R.J. Ranjit Daniels, wildlife ecologist, says that there is no reason why a tiger or a leopard should not be described as a wild cat. In the list in the report, all are wild cats and specialists make a distinction among them as “small cats” and “big cats” when they wish to exclude one or the other. All other than the domestic cat are wild.