When the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) sent out a press release last December announcing that Lula the leopard cat had successfully undergone a root canal, it may have raised a few eyebrows.
Hong Kong is famous for its shop cats, some of whom — such as the late Brother Cream — have achieved local and even international notoriety. But many people have never heard of a leopard cat, let alone seen one. And yet they’re the only feline species native to Hong Kong, aside from South China tigers, who were hunted to extinction more than a century ago.
“Leopard cats are widely distributed across Hong Kong’s country parks [but] they are shy and elusive by nature so can be difficult to spot,” says Gary WJ Ades, head of the KFBG’s fauna conservation department.
Lula is an exception. She arrived at the KFBG’s Piers Jacobs Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016 after a member of the public mistook her for a stray house cat and began caring for her. When the error became clear, she was handed over to the SPCA, which in turn arranged for her to be transferred to the KFBG, which has facilities to rehabilitate and release wild animals. Unfortunately, the sanctuary’s veterinary specialists decided against releasing Lula.
“She was deemed non-releasable due to her behaviour in captivity and also because she had to have cataract surgery done,” says Ades. That was several years ago; the recent dental work was needed because she had chipped off the tips of her canine teeth, exposing the pulp and putting her at risk of infection. “Lula is doing well after her recent dental procedure; she is active and feeding well,” says Ades. “We are very happy with the dental work that was done.”
It’s easy to see how someone could mistake Lula for one of the many ordinary cats prowling Hong Kong’s back alleys. Leopard cats — known scientifically as Prionailurus bengalensis — are about the same size as domestic cats, but they have longer legs and webs between their toes. And they share a common ancestor with house cats, who arrived in China about 5,000 years ago. Some were domesticated, but those who weren’t continued to live and hunt in the wild, with a broad habitat that ranges from the Himalayan foothills in South Asia, to the entirety of continental Southeast Asia, right up to the Korean peninsula.
Leopard cats are regarded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as a “species of least concern,” meaning their global population is abundant and expanding. And they are thriving in the country parks of Hong Kong. In 2020, the KFBG launched a survey of its reforested conservation area on the slopes of Tai Mo Shan to see how many leopard cats lived there. With the help of 19 camera traps, they spotted nine different cats, including two kittens, in the 148-hectare park. “The result was beyond my expectations. I didn’t know there was such a number, considering how small the farm is,” KFBG conservation officer Yang Jianhuan told the South China Morning Post in January. It’s the second-densest concentration of leopard cats ever recorded, bested only by a small island off the coast of Singapore.
It’s still unlikely you’ll ever spot one, even if you’re an avid night hiker. “Leopard cats are incredibly agile and sure-footed. They are as silent as they walk through the undergrowth or when climbing up a tree,” says Ames. But if you do see one, he says, admire it from a distance.
“If you notice that the leopard is in distress [or] injured, you should note down the area and call SPCA immediately for assistance. Otherwise, it’s a rare treat to spot one of these leopard cats in the wild, so make the most of the time you have to observe it before it moves off into the forest.”
If you come across a leopard cat that needs assistance, call the SPCA at 2711 1000.