Most visitors to national parks and sanctuaries only have eyes for the tiger, lion, and maybe, the leopard and are blind to virtually everything else, especially to the host of smaller wildcats that can be found all over the country and whose presence or absence from an ecosystem indicates its health and well-being. There are over half a dozen of these fierce little spitfires stalking about in forests and grasslands or prowling in trees, each one as ferocious in its own way as any tiger. They may vary in size between that of a domestic cat to, say, a golden retriever.

Some are diurnal, others nocturnal, and their diets, though usually comprising rodents, small reptiles, frogs, insects and birds, may also include fish. They may hunt in deserts, in the plains and grasslands, in wetlands and thick forests and undergrowth and even up in the canopies of rainforests. Usually solitary, pairs meet up only during the breeding season and the average litter size is between one and four. All are territorial and will scent mark their territories. Some are under threat (all come under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, according them maximum security), others seem to be surviving well enough but all suffer from the effects of habitat loss and cultivation, leading to declining trends in population. Worse, few have been studied in any great detail, so we don’t know much about them. Maybe the little spitfires prefer to keep their lives secret.

Amongst the smallest of them is the rusty spotted cat (around 40 cm long), which is only found in India (nearly all over the country), Sri Lanka and the terai in Nepal. Its short fur is reddish grey, with rusty spots on its back and flanks. An inhabitant of dry deciduous forests, scrub grasslands, dense vegetation, it is to be found all over India. Specimens kept in captivity were found to be nocturnal. It hunts mainly rodents and birds. Its population is estimated at about 10,000 and are declining.

Another small but striking little wildcat is the Marbled cat, which stalks the forests of the Eastern Himalayas. Brownish-grey to ocherous-brown on top, it is greyish below, and about the size of a domestic cat, but with a very long (over 30 cm), very furry tail. Its coat is attractively patterned in black, giving it a “marbled” appearance. The IUCN Redbook has listed it as “Near Threatened.” It prowls the forest canopies of the moist, mixed deciduous and evergreen forests of the Northeast. Those observed in the Northeast were found to be mostly active during the day. It has been trapped for its beautiful coat, meat and bones (the curse of Chinese medicines!).

The fishing cat is stoutly built, medium in size over 3 ft long, deep yellow or ash grey with black stripes and spots. It wears a double coat: a short, dense coat provides waterproofing and guards against chill, while a longer more decorative coat gives it its good looks! It is said to make a ‘“chuckling” sound (difficult as it may be to imagine that!) It has been listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN Redbook, chiefly on account that wetlands, swamps, mangroves and other water bodies all over the country are being ruthlessly drained and put to other purposes. Aquaculture is a major threat to its well-being. The fishing cat is a true wetland cat, a great swimmer that can stay under water for long periods. It uses an ingenious fishing technique: Crouching at the edge of a water body, it skims the surface of the water with its paw, mimicking an insect that has fallen in. A fish investigating this ends up as dinner! This cat is patchily distributed in south and southeast India as well as the Sunderbans, the foothills of the Himalayas and the river valleys of the Ganges and Brahmaputra.

The jungle cat is the only small wildcat I’ve actually seen in the wild — a specimen crouched at the edge of a small water-body in the Keoladeo National Park, where it was drinking. It looked up at us balefully, obviously annoyed at being disturbed and slunk away into the undergrowth in that usual furtive feline manner. It is another medium-size wetland-loving cat, as its aliases — reed cat, and swamp cat — suggest. It has been listed as of “Least Concern” by the IUCN Redbook.

It’s a medium-sized cat, with a white muzzle, hair tufts sticking out of its ears, implacable yellow eyes, and an even sandy, grey or brownish coat marked with spots. It roams around in agricultural lands, hunting gerbils, rodents, reptiles and birds. In the wild, it must keep away from golden jackals, bears and crocodiles. Like the caracal, it is capable of stupendous vertical leaps to bring down flying birds. When faced with a threat, this small tiger emits miniature roars before rushing in to battle! Though it is India’s commonest wildcat, it too hasn’t been extensively studied. Again, habitat destruction, the building of dams, pollution, urbanisation are posing threats to
its future.

In Part II, we’ll meet the stunning golden cat, and the fabulous and oh-so-rare caracal, among others.

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)

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