One Monday night, about 70 IU students and Bloomington, IN residents had a face-to-face encounter with a survivor of the international drug wars. A native of India or perhaps Pakistan, he is a lean, handsome fellow known simply as Bunga.
He glared at the people who came to see him and growled. And then he ignored everybody and started playing with a feathered bob on a string.
"Bunga was confiscated in a drug bust," explained John Becker, executive director of the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC).
ISEC was founded in 1988 as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the 36 species of cats that live in the wild throughout the world. Most of these species are endangered, some critically. ISEC is based in Columbus, OH and their website is at http://www.isec.org/.
Becker said that Bunga, a member of the species Felis chaus (more commonly known as the reed or jungle cat), was captured and taken from his native country by drug smugglers who were trading in black market goods such as exotic animals.
Bunga ended up at the house of a drug dealer who mistakenly thought a wild cat would make a cool pet. To protect himself and his furniture, the dealer had Bunga declawed, but whoever did it botched the job. Becker said that as a result of the declawing, Bunga sometimes walks with a limp, and he can never be returned to the wild.
That is the main reason why Bunga has become one of Becker's four show-and-tell wild cats that he brings with him to his educational presentations. Becker said that during one 18-month period, he gave programs on the plight of endangered cats to more than 400 different schools and organizations around the U.S.
With Becker's speaking schedule, it's no wonder Bunga seemed a bit grumpy as Becker and his assistant coaxed him out of his cat carrier. But once he was out in the lights of the auditorium, it was easy to see why the drug dealer wanted him -- he's 20 pounds of lithe muscle covered in satiny black fur. Add in his big golden eyes and gravelly meow, and he's a kitty many covet.
And Bunga is truly rare. Jungle cats, which originally ranged from Egypt to Southeast Asia, are endangered due to habitat loss and the exotic pet trade. Becker said that only 21 jungle cats live in zoos around the United States. In addition, Bunga is a comparatively uncommon melanistic (black) animal; regular jungle cats have tawny fur.
"When we take animals like this out into educational programs, we're concerned that some people will think that a cat like this would make a neat pet," Becker said. "wild animals like this never, ever make good pets. We hear stories every single day of people who try to turn a wild cat into a pet who get hurt."
Before he brought out Bunga, Becker started his presentation with a slide show on endangered cats. Audience members saw everything from the rusty-spotted cat, which barely weighs 2.5 pounds full-grown, to the biggest of the big cats, the Siberian tiger, which can weigh up to 800 pounds. He also showed slides of rare exotic felines few people have even heard of, such as the flat-headed cat, whose big-eyed face almost looks like that of a monkey.
"There are some major factors in these animals becoming endangered," Becker said. "One is that people are still making fur coats out of them."
He paused to show a slide of a smiling shopkeeper in Nepal proudly displaying floor-length coats made from the skins of clouded and snow leopards.
"The sad fact is, the rarer these animals are, the more their furs are worth, and the more diligently some people try to kill them," Becker said.
He added that habitat destruction is another major factor in the decline of these animals. "When I was in Belize, we were going down this highway, and on one side of the road it was beautiful forest, and on the other side it was just a blackened waste."
He later learned the forest was being burned down to plant citrus trees.
He said the loss of these cat species would be a tragedy not only because of their beauty but because they are top-level predators critical to maintaining the planet's ecology. Without them, the populations of other animals such as rats and deer may grow out of control, causing other problems such as de-vegetation.
Becker said that while there are many other wildlife protection groups that deal with wild cats, such as Project Tiger and the International Snow Leopard Trust, ISEC is the only group concerned woth all 36 of the planet's endangered cat species.
He said that of those 36, people mostly focus on the seven big cat species, so it's up to ISEC to raise awareness of the smaller cats that are in trouble. In addition to giving educational programs, ISEC works with these other groups and raises money for scientific research efforts around the world. Some of the projects ISEC has partially funded include the Global Cheetah Project, which examines the condition of cheetahs all over Africa, and an ongoing bobcat study at Mississippi State University.
Becker said ISEC is particularly interested in increasing captive breeding programs around the U.S. He said most species' populations are so low in the wild, the only hope for saving them lies in building up captive populations so that someday the cats can be reintroduced into the wild, as was successfully done with the black-footed ferret and the California condor.
"Unfortunately, we only have 6 species survival plans for 37 species," he said. "We don't even have a game plan for saving most of these cats."
He said it has become necessary for scientists to actively search for cats in the wild to capture so that they can be sure they have a viable gene pool to breed from.
"Lots of wild cats don't breed well when they're left to their own devices in captivity," he said.
To address this problem, some research groups, such as the Center for the Reproduction of endangered wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo, are focusing on fertility-enhancing procedures such as creating in vitro wild cat embryos for implantation into domestic cats.Becker said such measures may be too late for some species. He said even though most public interest has gone toward saving big cats like lions and tigers, they are heading on the downward spiral toward extinction.