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In Search Of the World’s Smallest Cat

The Rusty-spotted Cat is one of the world’s smallest cat species and also one of the most elusive. Setting out camera traps to find them in Girithale, my study site in the north-central province of Sri Lanka, was not going to be an easy task. So I called on the experts: Dr. Jim Sanderson, GWC’s Small Cat Conservation Program manager; GWC associate conservation scientists Anya Ratnayaka and Sagar Dahal; and Anya’s field assistant Maduranga.

Girithale is one of the best places in Sri Lanka to witness wildlife and our plan was to set up our first camera-trap monitoring project to see if we could get a photo of the Rusty-spotted Cat. Jim—who has been to Sri Lanka often—had traveled all the way from the States, while Sagar was visiting from Nepal in his first visit to Sri Lanka.

The study site.

We reached our accommodations in Girithale in the evening. After unloading our backpacks, we wasted no time and went straight to the wildlife training center to talk with the wildlife officers and to provide our permits. After working out a few logistics, we headed back to our lodging to get ready for the next day’s fieldwork.

The next day was a bright, sunny and humid day—as it seems all days are in Girithale. In the morning we prepped the camera traps for their mission. After enjoying a few spicy Sri Lankan dishes, we reached the edge of Minneriya-Girithale Nature Reserve, where we aimed to set our traps. The evening is the best time to set traps to avoid the heat—and the wild elephants.

Checking the camera traps.

The five-kilometer hike was full of excitement and obstacles. We trekked through thorny bushes and dense secondary forests to rocky mountains, ending in the magnificent Girithale Lake. It took us four hours to set our initial batch of cameras. Jim trained us to set the camera traps to take the perfect images of the small cats. We ended the evening enjoying the sunset and watching elephants slowly move to the grassy bank at the edge of the lake. It would be another six weeks before we’d be able to come back to check the camera traps.

Fast forward to this month. I went back to Girithale to check the cameras. I walked the same route and found the cameras using the help of a GPS unit and a friend. After collecting and analyzing the data, I was amazed by the results:

There was the Rusty-spotted Cat in the pictures. Rustys can be easily identified by their unique reddish brown body color and dark brown spotted pattern spread around their tiny body.

The team.

It was a great achievement to capture the rarest small cat in our first camera-trapping attempt. I was amazed when I saw the rusty photographs while sorting the pictures, and I even double checked to confirm it. There were many rumors about rusty spotted cats living in this area but this was first time anyone has gotten photos in this area in Sri Lanka. We were able to get three pictures of same individual out of 1,870 pictures within 5,400 trapping hours.

We also recorded the Toque Macaque, Wild Boars, Ring-tail Civets, mouse deer and many species of mongooses from the cameras. These surveys shows how rich the biodiversity is in the area that provides enormous value to those landscapes and they help to raise awareness about the need for protection of the wildlife parks.

(All photos by Ashan Thudugala. Top camera trap image courtesy of Small Cat Advocacy and Research–SCAR.)

About the Author

Ashan Thudugala

Ashan Thudugala

Ashan Thudugala is a GWC associate conservation scientist who focuses on small wild cat conservation and research. Ashan co-founded the Small Cat Advocacy & Research organization in Sri Lanka. He has also led the save Fishing Cat conservation project since 2013 to protect and preserve the small wild cats. He works with the local communities in central and northern Sri Lanka while monitoring the human–wild cat conflict and threats against Fishing Cats. He strongly believes in community-based conservation and threat re-education to save small wild cats species from local extinction.