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Purrfect storm: India’s wild small cats are facing a case of too much love, and too little

ByNatasha Rego
Mar 09, 2024 06:56 PM IST

Species such as the caracal and rusty spotted cat are threatened; poached as pets; mistaken for leopards and attacked. Yet all eyes remain on the tiger, lion.

Every year, the NGO Wildlife SOS receives calls from panicked villagers who have mistaken a juvenile rusty spotted cat for a leopard cub.

PREMIUM
The leopard cat is often mistaken for a leopard. (Shutterstock)

The rusty spotted cat is the smallest wild cat in the world. It doesn’t grow to more than 1.5 ft in length (not including its foot-long tail) and rarely weighs more than 2 kg. Unlike leopards, which can weigh up to 70 kg and are apex predators, this cat’s biggest prey are frogs and certain small birds.

Wildlife SOS typically conducts a medical examination and then waits until their mother appears to reclaim them, but many stories involving wild small cats in India have less-happy endings. It is often a case of too much love, or too little.

Among other threats such as loss of habitat, small cats are captured and trapped as pets, or mistaken for more menacing big cats and attacked or killed. They are even, in some cases, mistakenly hunted for their meat.

A key issue is that we know too little about them, says Shomita Mukherjee, senior principal scientist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

“There are instances where the kittens of small cats have been mistaken for domestic cats and brought home, only to find that their behaviour is different,” says Kishor Rithe, director of the Bombay Natural History Society. The kittens are typically then abandoned or must spend a year being reintroduced to the wild (if they have been away from their mother for more than a few days, the chances of a successful reunion are slim.)

The caracal, meanwhile, is elusive and so rare that there are just two known viable populations in India, one each in Ranthambore and Kutchh.

There are reports of the Eurasian lynx, a medium-sized species found in Ladakh, being mistaken for the wolf, which is viewed as a threat to livestock.

A rusty spotted kitten that was mistaken for a leopard cub is medically examined before being reunited with its mother. (Wildlife SOS)

The fishing cat is sometimes mistaken for the civet, which is hunted for its meat. The fishing cat is an endangered species found in wetlands in South and South-East Asia. The world’s first census of this species outside a protected area, conducted in 2022 around the Chilika lake in Odisha, found 176 individuals in the region.

Profit can be a motive too. “In Gujarat, our team has found that poachers are intentionally picking up small cats and selling them as leopard cubs,” says Raj Bhavsar, project coordinator at Wildlife SOS and president of the Gujarat Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Bell the cat

The scale of the threat to India’s wild small cats is significant, and the lack of data only clouds the problem.

All of the country’s 11 species of wild small cats, for instance, feature on the IUCN Red List of threatened species globally.

Unlike big cats, these smaller wild cats tend to feed on prey that is smaller than them, and thus play a vital role in ecosystem management. Most feed on small rodents.

In one of Mukherjee’s early cat-diet studies, she found that a single jungle cat (which weighs about 4 kg) and a single caracal (about 6 kg) at the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan ate up to 5,000 rodents a year. This makes them indispensable in rodent population control.

“One of the reasons we know so little about our small cats is because they are so hard to study,” says Mukherjee. “For one, they are small. Several are nocturnal and solitary. Because they have keener senses than us, they detect us before we detect them, and then stop doing what they were doing and run away, or go silent and watch us instead, and we don’t obtain much information.”

Technology is helping somewhat, allowing researchers to study animal scat at the molecular level, to glean far more about these animals, their populations and habitats. “We also have a much better idea of some small cat species’ distribution, although it’s not complete information, because of tiger monitoring exercises that have involved setting camera traps across large swathes,” says Mukherjee of the Salim Ali centre.

All 11 species of wild small cats in India feature on the IUCN Red List of threatened species globally. Among the threats faced by the fishing cat (above left) is that it is sometimes mistaken for a civet (above right), which is hunted for its meat. (Shutterstock; Rohit Naniwadekar)

For instance, the rusty spotted cat, historically found only in India and Sri Lanka, was spotted for the first time in Nepal in 2016, in camera traps set up for a tiger census. They have been spotted in an expanding range of ecosystems across India too, via such camera traps.

To really learn about small cats though, Mukherjee says, researchers will have to design far more specific camera-trap studies. “For tigers, for instance, one may place one camera per 5 sq km,” she says. “But there will possibly be many more individuals of several small cat species in that area, since they have smaller home ranges. We have to go at it with a fine-toothed comb, to fill the gaps in our data.” All this while, small cat habitats shrink and fragment, roadkill remains a persistent threat, and poaching for small cats as exotic pets continues.

The government has made something of a start. In 2020, the union environment ministry, along with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Wide Fund for Nature, Global Tiger Forum and India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), launched a small-cat conservation programme in Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, to secure small-cat habitats and encourage community participation and corporate partnerships.

Still, there is no concerted effort for the conservation of small cats in India, says YV Jhala, former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, an autonomous institute under the environment ministry. “The belief is that if you conserve apex predators, such as the tiger and lion, everything else will stabilise. But that is not the case. In fact, in the effort to increase tiger and lion numbers, habitats are being changed to increase their prey. The umbrella role of the tiger and lion is compromised when management interventions go beyond ecological carrying capacities, and that’s detrimental for small cats and for the habitat as a whole.”

Jhala argues that small cats have a particularly vital role in ecosystem management because they regulate small mammal and bird populations that affect humans the most.

“It’s still difficult to say what the impact of losing our small cats would be, because we’re still figuring out the extent of their populations and distribution across the country, and have rudimentary information on the populations of a few species,” adds Mukherjee. “But as chief rodent-eaters, we can logically assume that the impact would be immense.”

Every year, the NGO Wildlife SOS receives calls from panicked villagers who have mistaken a juvenile rusty spotted cat for a leopard cub.

PREMIUM
The leopard cat is often mistaken for a leopard. (Shutterstock)

The rusty spotted cat is the smallest wild cat in the world. It doesn’t grow to more than 1.5 ft in length (not including its foot-long tail) and rarely weighs more than 2 kg. Unlike leopards, which can weigh up to 70 kg and are apex predators, this cat’s biggest prey are frogs and certain small birds.

Wildlife SOS typically conducts a medical examination and then waits until their mother appears to reclaim them, but many stories involving wild small cats in India have less-happy endings. It is often a case of too much love, or too little.

Among other threats such as loss of habitat, small cats are captured and trapped as pets, or mistaken for more menacing big cats and attacked or killed. They are even, in some cases, mistakenly hunted for their meat.

A key issue is that we know too little about them, says Shomita Mukherjee, senior principal scientist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

“There are instances where the kittens of small cats have been mistaken for domestic cats and brought home, only to find that their behaviour is different,” says Kishor Rithe, director of the Bombay Natural History Society. The kittens are typically then abandoned or must spend a year being reintroduced to the wild (if they have been away from their mother for more than a few days, the chances of a successful reunion are slim.)

The caracal, meanwhile, is elusive and so rare that there are just two known viable populations in India, one each in Ranthambore and Kutchh.

There are reports of the Eurasian lynx, a medium-sized species found in Ladakh, being mistaken for the wolf, which is viewed as a threat to livestock.

A rusty spotted kitten that was mistaken for a leopard cub is medically examined before being reunited with its mother. (Wildlife SOS)

The fishing cat is sometimes mistaken for the civet, which is hunted for its meat. The fishing cat is an endangered species found in wetlands in South and South-East Asia. The world’s first census of this species outside a protected area, conducted in 2022 around the Chilika lake in Odisha, found 176 individuals in the region.

Profit can be a motive too. “In Gujarat, our team has found that poachers are intentionally picking up small cats and selling them as leopard cubs,” says Raj Bhavsar, project coordinator at Wildlife SOS and president of the Gujarat Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Bell the cat

The scale of the threat to India’s wild small cats is significant, and the lack of data only clouds the problem.

All of the country’s 11 species of wild small cats, for instance, feature on the IUCN Red List of threatened species globally.

Unlike big cats, these smaller wild cats tend to feed on prey that is smaller than them, and thus play a vital role in ecosystem management. Most feed on small rodents.

In one of Mukherjee’s early cat-diet studies, she found that a single jungle cat (which weighs about 4 kg) and a single caracal (about 6 kg) at the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan ate up to 5,000 rodents a year. This makes them indispensable in rodent population control.

“One of the reasons we know so little about our small cats is because they are so hard to study,” says Mukherjee. “For one, they are small. Several are nocturnal and solitary. Because they have keener senses than us, they detect us before we detect them, and then stop doing what they were doing and run away, or go silent and watch us instead, and we don’t obtain much information.”

Technology is helping somewhat, allowing researchers to study animal scat at the molecular level, to glean far more about these animals, their populations and habitats. “We also have a much better idea of some small cat species’ distribution, although it’s not complete information, because of tiger monitoring exercises that have involved setting camera traps across large swathes,” says Mukherjee of the Salim Ali centre.

All 11 species of wild small cats in India feature on the IUCN Red List of threatened species globally. Among the threats faced by the fishing cat (above left) is that it is sometimes mistaken for a civet (above right), which is hunted for its meat. (Shutterstock; Rohit Naniwadekar)

For instance, the rusty spotted cat, historically found only in India and Sri Lanka, was spotted for the first time in Nepal in 2016, in camera traps set up for a tiger census. They have been spotted in an expanding range of ecosystems across India too, via such camera traps.

To really learn about small cats though, Mukherjee says, researchers will have to design far more specific camera-trap studies. “For tigers, for instance, one may place one camera per 5 sq km,” she says. “But there will possibly be many more individuals of several small cat species in that area, since they have smaller home ranges. We have to go at it with a fine-toothed comb, to fill the gaps in our data.” All this while, small cat habitats shrink and fragment, roadkill remains a persistent threat, and poaching for small cats as exotic pets continues.

The government has made something of a start. In 2020, the union environment ministry, along with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Wide Fund for Nature, Global Tiger Forum and India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), launched a small-cat conservation programme in Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, to secure small-cat habitats and encourage community participation and corporate partnerships.

Still, there is no concerted effort for the conservation of small cats in India, says YV Jhala, former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, an autonomous institute under the environment ministry. “The belief is that if you conserve apex predators, such as the tiger and lion, everything else will stabilise. But that is not the case. In fact, in the effort to increase tiger and lion numbers, habitats are being changed to increase their prey. The umbrella role of the tiger and lion is compromised when management interventions go beyond ecological carrying capacities, and that’s detrimental for small cats and for the habitat as a whole.”

Jhala argues that small cats have a particularly vital role in ecosystem management because they regulate small mammal and bird populations that affect humans the most.

“It’s still difficult to say what the impact of losing our small cats would be, because we’re still figuring out the extent of their populations and distribution across the country, and have rudimentary information on the populations of a few species,” adds Mukherjee. “But as chief rodent-eaters, we can logically assume that the impact would be immense.”

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