The Asian Leopard Cat has the widest geographic distribution of all felines. It is found across China, Southeast Asia, Korea, India, Pakistan and the Russian Far East. Handout.

Just last month leopards were declared extinct in Laos. They have disappeared from Vietnam and are likely to go extinct in Cambodia. Tigers also have vanished from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Other cat species are not faring much better, falling victim to poachers’ snares and developers’ roads, often ending up in illegal wildlife trade markets in the notorious Golden Triangle where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet.

However, within the Greater Mekong Region, there is one area that is something of a haven for cat species – a landscape the size of Cambodia straddling Thailand and Myanmar with a name that is something of a mouthful – Dawna Tenasserim. Here in the mountains and jungles of a not widely known landscape, one-fifth of the world’s cat species are hanging on while the world outside (and inside at times) does everything it can to ensure their demise.

Aerial shot of Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand. Photo: Adam Oswell/WWF

Some of the stars of this show are familiar, such as tigers and leopards, celebrated far and wide in poetry, literature and Disney films. The others are not so well known, such as Asiatic golden cats, marbled cats, clouded leopards, jungle cats and leopard cats. That’s seven of the 36 known cat species. And it’s quite possible that the highly elusive fishing cat lives in this landscape, bringing the number to eight.

These cats are profiled in a new report, “Dawna Tenasserim: The Land of Cats.” It shines a light on a part of the world that is still 82% forested – which alone is eye-popping. Vast areas of wilderness in Southeast Asia are becoming a thing of the past as development opens up previously inaccessible forests, allowing easy access for poachers. But in the Dawna Tenasserim, there is still hope.

Left to right: Tiger © Emmanuel Rondeau; Leopard © Klara Bousova; Clouded Leopard © naturepl.com : Georgette Douwma : WWF; Asiatic Golden Cat © Gerald S. Cubitt : WWF; Jungle cat © Roger Hooper : WWF; Leopard Cat © Lee Poston : WWF Greater Mekong; Marbled Cat © The Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP)/WWF-Thailand; Fishing Cat © David Lawson : WWF-UK

It’s not rocket science. Large, unbroken high-quality tropical forests with low poaching pressure and good management lead to very high biodiversity. What cats most need is plenty of prey, lots of space and to be left alone. If all this happens they’ll breed like, well, cats.

The tigers have certainly been trying their best. The Dawna Tenasserim has 180-220 tigers and a recent Myanmar census of just 8% of the country’s tiger habitat showed at least 22 individuals. Cubs are caught on camera trap every year in Thailand and late last year, video of a well-known male tiger feasting on a huge gaur brought renewed hope of the resiliency of tigers in Thailand.

Also in Thailand, a tiger was recorded in Kui Buri National Park for the first time in seven years. Leopards have a stronghold in the northern part of the landscape and the jungle cat, once thought extinct in the Dawna Tenasserim, re-emerged on camera in 2017.

These are all good signs. As the report highlights, threats such as conversion of land for corn, rubber, cassava, oil palm and betel nut are on the increase. Land conversion and construction of roads accelerate the poaching threat by providing easier access to endangered species. Cheap, home-made snares can kill or maim any creature that comes along.

Another looming threat is the proposed Dawei-Htee Khee Road that will connect a deep-sea port and special economic zone in Dawei, Myanmar, with Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. If built, it will bisect the north/south migration routes for elephants and tigers. Recent wildlife surveys along the proposed route highlight the fact that numerous wildlife species – many endangered – exist within close proximity of the route.

Aerial view of route for the Dawei-Htee Khee Road, Tanintharyi River and surrounding forests in the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar. The Dawei Road construction and expansion could impact the surrounding ecosystem including the forests, villages and wildlife. © Adam Oswell/WWF

So what to do? A good start would be increased funding to protect critical areas for cat populations, along with new surveys and research on prey abundance and habitat needs. Governments and developers also need to work with scientists to map, identify and protect wildlife corridors, both within each country and between them.

A member of Lake Hla Aii Fish Conservation in Tayat Chaung township, Tanintharyi division, Myanmar. ©Hkun Lat/WWF

Enforcement against poaching needs strengthening, with additional rangers and community wildlife protection units. Engaging with communities is key to protecting cat species, stopping poaching and addressing other threats. And perhaps most crucial, with so much development planned for Myanmar and Thailand in coming years, infrastructure must be planned and built with nature in mind. If a project impacts habitat for species like cats, developers and governments should build in mitigation measures to keep damage to a minimum.

Thailand and Myanmar are truly blessed and the majority of their populations don’t even know it. The Dawna Tenasserim holds an embarrassment of riches, with the cats as standard bearers. But their future existence here is by no means guaranteed. For them to persist and for this place to retain its reputation as The Land of Cats, it will take awareness, commitment and investment of money, expertise and manpower.

Tiger caught on camera trap © The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) : WWF-Thailand

Lee Poston is communications adviser for WWF-Greater Mekong, based in Bangkok. He works with WWF programs in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to raise awareness about critical conservation and environmental issues.

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