The diverse wildlife of India is home to several fascinating animals in the world. The most prominent species that stands out is the Indian cat. There are a total of 15 wild cat species in the Indian subcontinent, a number that remains unmatched anywhere around the globe.
When one thinks of the big cats in India, tigers, leopards, and the rare lion instantly pops into mind. Small elusive cats, however, distribute themselves all over the country. These cats are also as crucial to the ecosystem as their famous relatives.
Taxonomically, the large and small cats are different in terms of the subfamily. Big cats are part of the Pantherine subfamily, while small cats belong to the Felinae subfamily.
Very little is known about the small cat species of India, as they share the same similarities and are difficult to track. However, recent studies have concluded that there is a widespread population of different small cat species all over the country.
Here is a list of the top six small cat species residing in a variety of habitats in India:
Found in the semi-arid regions of Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan, the caracal appears similar to a lynx. It has a sleek, short-haired coat and tufted ears, which are believed to detect the sound of prey. An adult caracal weighs approximately 12 kilogrammes and jumps at least 3 metres high.
A caracal is extremely agile and has impressive speed to take down its prey. It is a nocturnal animal that hunts mainly at night. It preys on hares, rodents, small antelopes, and birds.
Caracals are known to breed throughout the year.
- IUCN status: least concern
- Where to see caracals: Rare sightings of caracals are seen in Central India and Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan.
2. Asian Golden Cat
Appearing as a smaller version of the North American puma, the Asian Golden Cat has a golden coat and black stripes on its face. It generally inhabits the sub-tropical forests of northeast India. They are also found in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Sikkim.
Along with its black stripes, the Asian golden cat also has strikingly white stripes that run along the inner linings of its eyes. The markings on it have led to its famous nickname, the ‘fire cat,’ and people often mistake it for a young leopard.
Camera traps found that the coat of this cat varies in colours like melanistic, cinnamon, grey, and golden.
Weighing merely 8 to 15 kilogrammes, they can hunt down larger prey such as goats, sheep, and buffalo calves. As they are difficult to observe in the wild, the mating system of the Asiatic golden cat is relatively unknown.
- IUCN status: Near Threatened
- Where to spot Asian Golden Cats: Sightings of the cat are possible in Manas National Park, Assam, and Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh.
3. Asiatic wildcat
Asiatic wildcats are often mistaken for domestic cats, as both share similar features. The Asiatic wildcat has a sandy coat with white underparts and black spots. Furthermore, it has two specific markings on its cheeks and inner forelimbs. It is the closest wild ancestor of domestic cats.
An Asiatic wildcat eats rodents, fish, small reptiles, eggs, birds, insects, and more. Their feet are long and furry, which helps them walk on hot and rocky landscapes.
The desert is the primary habitat of Asiatic wildcats, and they follow a burrowing system. These cats are efficient diggers, as they construct burrows and dig out rodents.
The cats inhabit the dry regions of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and certain areas of Maharashtra. The mating system of Asiatic wildcats varies according to the region. Interbreeding also takes place when a female wildcat mates with a domestic male cat.
- IUCN status: Least concern
- Where to see Asiatic wildcats: Sightings of the cats are seen in the Thar desert and the desert national park in Rajasthan.
4. Jungle Cat
The jungle cat is one of the most widespread Felinae species in India, further divided into four subspecies. The cat is slender and has a plain coat that varies from reddish to sandy yellow colours, depending on the region. It has several rings on its tail and brown stripes on the legs.
Jungle cats usually reside in wetlands, swamps, and flood plains within dense coastal vegetation, forests, and shrubs. Unlike many other wild cats, a jungle cat is not nocturnal. They enjoy hunting during the daytime, especially in the mornings and afternoons.
These cats are excellent swimmers and dive into the water to hunt for fish or escape danger. They like to prey on snakes, lizards, rodents, and frogs. They prefer to rest inside the burrows of porcupines, foxes, and badgers.
The mating season usually takes place from January to March. However, it can depend on geographic locations as well.
- IUCN status: Least Concern
- Where to see Jungle Cats: Sightings of the cats are seen in Ranthambore, Satpura, and Pench national parks.
5. Rusty-spotted cat
The rusty-spotted cat is the smallest of the wildcats, weighing only 1.6 kg. It is also known as the hummingbird of the cat family and has rusty-coloured spots on its head, back, and sides. A fully grown rusty-spotted cat is similar in size to a domestic cat.
This cat is extremely elusive and prefers to inhabit rocky areas, open forests, and scrubs. It also lives close to human settlements. Aside from India, the cat also lives in Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Not much is known about the rusty-spotted cats’ behaviour. However, camera traps observe that they are mostly nocturnal with limited daytime activity. The cat preys on rodents, birds, lizards, frogs, and insects.
Habitat destruction and deforestation in India are threatening its population.
- IUCN status: Near Threatened
- Where to see rusty-spotted cats: Sightings of the cat are seen in Sariska tiger reserve, Gir national park, Tadoba Andhari tiger reserve, and Kaleshwar national park.
6. Leopard cat
A leopard cat is a miniature or smaller version of a leopard. But unlike their larger relatives, leopard cats lack rosettes. Instead, they have black spots spread throughout their coat. The weight of a leopard cat is between 3 and 4 kg.
After the jungle cat, the leopard cat is the most common in India. It inhabits mostly deciduous forests, scrublands, grasslands, tropical evergreen forests, and cultivated areas.
The leopard cat is a highly skilled climber and hunts lizards, hares, amphibians, and tree shrews. In India, they are found in the Terai and Himalayan regions as well as parts of the Western Ghats.
Their mating season varies according to climatic conditions.
IUCN status: least concern
Where to see leopard cats: Sightings of this cat are seen in Bhadra Tiger Reserve and Biligiri Rangaswamy National Park.
Although the small cat species of India are intriguing, their population seems to be threatened. Habitat destruction, poaching, and illegal trading are drastically declining their population.
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