[Commentary] Keeping wildlife wild: Learnings from rehabilitating the world’s smallest wild cat

  • The population of the rusty-spotted cat is thriving outside protected forest areas, in human-dominated spaces like agricultural landscapes.
  • In this commentary, the author shares the journey of a rusty-spotted cat individual which was the first to be ever captive raised and returned to the wild in India.
  • Countless wild animals end up in zoos and rescue centres with limited resources and spaces. There is a need to rehabilitate and release individual animals that will be better off getting a second chance at survival, writes the author of this commentary.
  • The views in this commentary are that of the author.

Just minutes before his release, standing on top of the cage trapdoor, I decided to give one last look to a rusty-spotted cat, ‘Numero Uno as I referred to him in my head. He was about to become India’s first rusty-spotted cat ever to be captive-raised, rehabilitated and released back into its natural habitat. If everything went as planned, that would also be the last time I ever see him.

He returned my stare by taking two steps back, baring his teeth and letting out a feisty snarl, totally unaware that I was about to set him free forever. I let out a small but quiet laugh while he hissed back at me from the release cage. My mere proximity and direct glance at him was enough to irk him into wanting to stay away. At that moment, I felt a complete sense of calm because he had just reassured me that the fierce wild cat in him was completely alive and that he was ready to go.

This rusty was an individual I rescued over a year ago when he was found abandoned in a sugarcane field near Pune. All attempts to reunite him with his mother had failed as that field and all the ones surrounding it were completely harvested, much too exposed for an elusive lesser wild cat mother to show up. This kitten was about to be sent to a zoo when I developed an intensive rehabilitation plan and presented it to the authorities. It involved several phases, set-ups and an exhaustive list of developmental and behavioural milestones to be achieved that finally resulted in a decision to attempt a different outcome for this animal. I was determined to demonstrate that wildlife may have the potential to get released back into its natural habitat at the right time, if done right.

Author Neha Panchamia with the rescued wild cat Numero Uno. Photo courtesy RESQ.
Author Neha Panchamia with the rescued wild cat Numero Uno. Photo courtesy RESQ CT (Wildlife) Pune.

Numero Uno was exposed to all weather elements and periods of food and water scarcity. His gut strength got tested with different qualities of feed and water, and his grit by his terrific ability to camouflage or hide when anything, human or animal, was made to approach his ex-situ enclosure. He was made to work for his meals and displayed aggression during the minimal handling he ever got subjected to. He reached over 85% of his final adult weight when we deemed him fit for release, which we planned once we knew his hormones had kicked in to survive a territorial fight that he would likely face once back out. We wanted to make sure that we could give him the best possible second chance at survival.

A portrait of the rusty-spotted cat

Known as the world’s smallest wild cat, the rusty-spotted cat is considered a rare sight. Found exclusively in the Indian Peninsula and the island country Sri Lanka, for years and even today it is believed that the population of this species is sparse. But is the population sparse or is it rarely ever spotted because of its elusive nature? The rusty-spotted cat is often indistinguishable from domestic cats to the untrained eye. Current studies in India have been focused around documenting its presence in protected forest areas, but what we hypothesise from our findings over the last four years, is that their population is thriving outside protected forest areas, in human-dominated agricultural landscapes where they are successfully breeding. They appear to be inhabiting shrubland and agricultural landscapes close to human settlements, seek cover for their offspring in sugarcane fields and live off small rodents or poultry carcass waste that is dumped around rural settlements.

Locals have discovered the kittens of Rusty-spotted cats in their agricultural fields during the time of sugarcane harvest. Photo courtesy RESQ.
Locals have discovered the kittens of rusty-spotted cats in their agricultural fields during the time of sugarcane harvest. Photo courtesy RESQ CT (Wildlife) Pune.

Our hypothesis stems from the number of reunions our team has been called out for. Each of them has been in response to the discovery of the kittens of rusty-spotted cats, by locals, at the time of sugarcane harvesting. In addition to attempting to reunite the kittens with their mother, our efforts include sensitising the locals about the cat’s presence in their fields. Once aware they often feel pride through the presence of these rare, elusive, and small cats who pose no threat to their life.

In one such recent case, we video documented in detail the process of reuniting two rusty-spotted cat kittens with their mother. The rare video footage we captured through our camouflaged live camera feed is an incredible source of insight into these lesser felines. Within the span of one hour, the reunion site was visited by a domestic cat as well as an Indian jungle cat, who peeked at the kittens curiously, but left quickly without harming the young ones. This behaviour is contrary to popular belief of cats being highly territorial. Potentially, they’ve adapted to sharing the space due to ample resources for all. Soon after the other cats left, the mother of the rusty-spotted cat kittens arrived, scrambled into the basket opening and picked one kitten out of the basket. She carried off her kitten and probably stashed it away in a safer location and returned an hour later to take the second one.

Rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife

While rescuing and rehabilitating individual animals sometimes costs the kind of money and time that can arguably be spent on protecting habitats and other conservation initiatives, there are several other variables to consider, especially in the Indian context. Countless wildlife ends up in Indian zoos or rescue centres, which, barring a few exceptions, have limited resources and are spaces where these animals languish in poor captive conditions devoid of enrichment and species-specific wildlife care for their entire lifetime.

It is critical to keep in mind that wildlife does not need rescuing unless it is in distress because of some form of direct human-wildlife conflict. For example, if an animal has gotten wounded because of a territorial fight in a forested area, I do not believe it warrants intervention involving rescue or treatment.

From my perspective, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation and everything I do originates from my experiences of witnessing countless human-wildlife conflict scenarios and arriving at the best potential outcome for wildlife and humans who struggle to share their living space.

My backyard, Pune district and the surrounding areas, are home to a multitude of wildlife whose landscape has dramatically changed over the last decade. Growth in urban development, shifts in agricultural patterns and climatic changes have led to an increasing number of wildlife coming into conflict which are then rescued after getting reported to the 24-hour emergency helpline at my organisation, RESQ.

For example, when a leopard has fallen down an open well, I believe it can be safely rescued and released swiftly after a health check. A strategic plan involving a safe rescue followed by veterinary treatment and rehabilitation can result in faster release of wildlife, whether a hyena’s limb caught in a hunting trap or the scores of birds whose wings get injured in kite-flying manja string.

There are two questions I commonly get asked, “don’t you get attached to the wildlife that you are rehabilitating?” and “why are they so scared of you?” A responsible wildlife rescuer or rehabilitator will keep minimal contact with wildlife and never form bonds with them the way people do with their pet animals. They understand that a wild animal who is reclusive or displays aggression towards them is a sign of successful rehabilitation.  Their survival in the wild depends on their ability to fend for themselves and to avoid human contact. Wildlife rehabilitation is all about keeping wildlife wild.

While there is minimal or no accountability of the proportion of rehabilitated animals that go on to survive, rejoin wild populations or breed successfully after being released, at this moment in time, I believe that there is a proactive need to rehabilitate and release individual animals – they’re better off getting a second chance at survival than spending their lifetime in captivity and burdening a departmental system that is already crumbling without respite.

Numero Uno, the rust-spotted cat, represents scores of wildlife that get rescued daily – seized from wildlife trafficking, the illegal pet trade or caught in distress situations bestowed upon them intentionally or unintentionally by humans. While some have no option but to remain in captivity, many still have hope.

Rescued wildlife often come to us in critical conditions. Unfortunately, many do not survive – but life and death are eventualities; you learn to embrace both when it is time. But if I can help it, my hope is to ensure they go through the least suffering possible. In the end, all life matters, species no bar.

The author is the Founder and President of RESQ Charitable Trust, Pune, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to minimise human-animal conflict and provide relief to animals in distress.

Read more: Two gaurs and a lesson in urban wildlife management

Banner image: Rusty-spotted cat. Photo courtesy RESQ CT (Wildlife) Pune.

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