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Clicked: Asiatic wildcat outside its known habitat

By Badri Chatterjee, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON DEC 26, 2019 12:10 AM IST

Wildlife researchers have recorded the first photographic evidence of the Asiatic wildcat, the ancestor of the domestic cat, outside its known habitat.

One of the most endangered among the five subspecies, the Asiatic wildcat (Felis silvestris) is similar in appearance to the domestic cat (Felis catus), varying in colour from light yellow to reddish and gray with black stripes or spots.

Weighing approximately two to eight kilograms, with a maximum body length of 64cm, the small mammal’s upper chest and chin is often white while the tail is ringed with a black tip. It is found in Rajasthan, Gujarat, parts of Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra.

New research by The Corbett Foundation along with the department of wildlife sciences, Aligarh Muslim University, reported the first occurrence of the animal outside this known habitat. Researchers Tahir Ali Rather, Sharad Kumar, Ajinkya Kamat and Kedar Gore found the Asiatic wildcat in the moist deciduous forest in the corridor of more than 2,000 sq. kms adjoining Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and Sanjay-Dubri Tiger Reserve in eastern Madhya Pradesh.

Their findings have been published in the latest edition CATnews, a newsletter of the Cat Specialist group, a component of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“This record provides crucial information regarding the distribution of the Asiatic wildcat in India. The species seems not to be restricted to the arid and semi-arid parts of the country, but to also occur more often than previously thought, in moist deciduous forest,” the paper concluded.

Researchers said they had documented one photograph of the Asiatic wildcat in the buffer zone of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in 2017.

Over the last two years, the group has documented the animal’s movement within the wildlife corridor and its documentation indicates the animals are breeding successfully.

“The Asiatic wildcat is known to be ancestor of all domestic cats in India. With a much wider distribution of this species noted by this study, it emphasises that connecting links between crucial tiger corridors need to be protected and managed well as we are still not aware of the rich biodiversity present in these zones,” said Gore, director, The Corbett Foundation and a Mumbai-based environmentalist.

The Corbett Foundation has undertaken habitat restoration work over 90 hectares in this corridor and also identified open wells as a huge threat for the wildcat and other big cat species. As a part of the larger project with holistic approach to wildlife conservation, more than 1200 of these open wells were fenced off to prevent wild animals from falling in and drowning.

“Many cases have been recorded of these rare cats being found dead in unusual places in India where we have no knowledge of their existence or habitat. While protecting tiger corridors, we need to protect this large biodiversity including Asiatic wildcats and the frequency of such studies needs to increase,” said Nitin Desai, director (central India), Wildlife Protection Society of India.

The Madhya Pradesh forest department said it is working on various strategies to ensure the wildlife corridor remains protected. “These lesser known species are also the first species to be wiped out without leaving a trace if there is any disturbance to their habitat. However, our efforts will continue to ensure these eco-indicator species and their habitat is safeguarded,” said Rajnish Kumar Singh, deputy conservator of forest (wildlife).

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