The diverse wildlife of India is home to several fascinating animals in the world. The most prominent which stands out is the Indian cat species. 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, the tigers, leopards, and the rare lion instantly pop up in mind. However, many elusive small cats are distributed all over the country. These cats are also as important 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 subfamily Pantherine 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 the widespread population of the different small cat species all over the country.
Here is a list of top 6 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, caracal appears similar to a lynx. It has a sleek, short-haired coat and tufted ears which are believed to detect the sound of the prey. An adult caracal weighs approximately 12 kilograms and jumps at least 3 meters high.
A caracal is extremely agile and has an 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. However, due to these markings, it is famously referred to as a ‘Fire cat’ and often misidentified as a young leopard.
Camera traps found that the coat of this cat varies in colors like melanistic, cinnamon, grey, and golden.
Weighing merely 8 to 15 kilograms, 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 possibly seen 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, fishes, small reptiles, eggs, birds, insects, and more. Their feet are long and furry, which helps them walk on hot and rocky landscapes.
Desert is the primary habitat of Asiatic wildcats and they follow a burrow system. These cats are efficient diggers as they construct burrows and dig out rodents.
The cats can be found in the dry regions of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and some parts of Maharashtra. The mating system of Asiatic wildcat varies according to the region. Inter breeding also takes place where 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 Thar desert and the desert national park, Rajasthan.
4. Jungle Cat
The jungle cat is one 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 colors, depending on the region. It has several rings on its tail and brown stripes on the legs.
Jungle cats usually reside in wetlands, swamps, 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 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 cat – Sightings of the cats are seen in Ranthambore, Satpura, and Pench national park.
5. Rusty-spotted cat
The rusty-spotted cat is the smallest of the wildcats, weighing only 1.6 kgs. It is also known as the hummingbird of the cat family and has rusty colored 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’ behavior. 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, Kaleshwar national park.
6. Leopard cat
A leopard cat is a miniature or smaller version of a leopard. But unlike their larger relatives, a leopard cat lacks rosettes. Instead, they have black spots spread throughout its coat. The weight of a leopard cat is between 3 to 4 kgs.
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 an extremely 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 cat – 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 destructions, poaching, and illegal trading is drastically declining their population.
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