KATHMANDU — This past July 20, Radha Krishna Rijal noticed a strange animal struggling in the drainage channel of his house in the Parshyang neighborhood of western Nepal’s Pokhara Valley.
He’d never seen such an animal before, he tells Mongabay: it was small, with a long tail and a furry body. “It had rained continuously for over a day, and I saw this animal, which was the size of a baby cat in the drainage of my house,” Rijal says.
He called his neighbors, who took photos of the animals and tried to guess what it was, but coming up blank. “Many of the elders of the settlement said it was an otter, but we couldn’t reach a conclusion even after googling,” Rijal says.
So he sent the photos to a friend who might know, conservationist Tulasi Prasa Dahal at the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC). Dahal passed on the photo to an NTNC colleague, Madhu Chetri, who duly identified it as the rare bearcat, or binturong, Arctictis binturong, and circulated the image among experts to get their opinion.
The bearcat, which looks like the hybrid that its name invokes, had long been thought to roam the forests of eastern Nepal, but there have been no confirmed sightings of this species that’s categorized as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
According to the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, the binturong is found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. It lists Nepal as a range country, despite the absence of concrete evidence so far of its existence here.
It also states that the species’ population may have declined by more than 30% over the past 18 years (three generations), given the loss of their habitat as well as hunting of mammals of its size, such as the red panda.
“The animal is known to be nocturnal and arboreal. In addition to that, there’s a possibility that people who spot it would take it as a cat or a bear,” says Hem Sagar Baral, co-author of the book Wild Mammals of Nepal.
“Despite the lack of photographic evidence, we continued to list the animal as a mammal endemic to Nepal,” says conservationist Karan Shah, another co-author of the book published in 2008.
“I am very glad that we persisted and that we have photographic evidence of its existence,” Shah, also a co-author of the recent study documenting the discovery in Parshyang, tells Mongabay.
That the animal, considered primarily a resident of East and Southeast Asia, was found in the Chitwan-Annapurna Landscape (CHAL) in western Nepal has left conservationists surprised.
“In the book, we couldn’t extend the range of the animal to the foothills of the Annapurna as no one had seen it there,” Baral says. The finding suggests that the binturong’s range extends from the country’s east to the CHAL, he added.
The other surprise was that it was found in an area where camera trap studies have been carried out extensively for various animals such as Bengal tigers, leopards and snow leopards. And while smaller mammals such as steppe polecats, marble cats and ruddy mongooses have showed up in the captured images, binturongs have never been pictured.
“We can say that most of the camera trap studies are strategically designed with a specific species in mind,” says the NTNC’s Chetri, lead author of the paper describing the binturong sighting.
“Also, the animal is arboreal, and camera trap studies haven’t been carried out for small mammals that live in such conditions,” Chetri tells Mongabay. “In fact, we have never conducted detailed micro-level surveys of the area.”
Back in the Pokhara Valley, where the animal was found, the residents who rescued it from the overflowing drainage channel tried to feed it rice and fruit, but it didn’t seem interested.
“It was more interested in eating earthworms,” Rijal says.
He handed the animal over to the local forestry office, which administered first aid, looked after it overnight, fed it chayote squash, and then released it into the wild the next day.
“We didn’t get a chance to look at the live animal as it had been released by the time we got there,” Chetri says. “However, with the evidence we have, we are certain that it was indeed the bearcat.”
When Mongabay breaks the news to Rijal that he had found such an enigmatic animal, he says, “I knew it was something different. I have been proven right.”
Chetri, M., Ale, P. B., Dahal, T. P., & Shah, K. B. (2022). First photographic evidence of the Binturong Arctictis binturong (Raffles, 1821) from Nepal. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 14(9), 21891-21894. doi:10.11609/jott.8126.96.36.19991-21894
This article by Abhaya Raj Joshi was first published by Mongabay.com on 29 September 2022. Lead Image: A binturong in Vivarium Darmstadt (Hessen, Germany). Image by 4028mdk09 Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).
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