- The caracal is a medium-sized cat with long legs, long canine teeth and a robust build. The quick-footed cat has a golden or sandy coat with large black ears.
- Since 2001, the caracal’s presence has been reported in only three states in India with only two possible viable populations: Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve and its contiguous areas in Rajasthan and the Kutch region of Gujarat. Till 2001, the caracal was reported in 13 Indian states and before that it was found by the side of humans.
- Researchers agree that habitat loss for the caracal, primarily because of changing land use, might be contributing to its dwindling numbers. Additionally, the caracal needs large tracts of land free from other predators like tigers which is difficult in India given its focus on conservation of the big cat.
The guide caught a glimpse. He signalled the driver to kick into gear and the tourist-carrying jeep zoomed inside the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. It was a warm summer evening with hues of soft light filtering through the trees.
The jeep stopped and the tourists frantically looked around the dry grasslands. When no stripes came into view, they frowned and took their seats. But not their guide.
Before then, the guide and conservation biologist, Dharmendra Khandal, had paid little attention to what was before him: a lithe cat with large black ears shooting out long tufts of hair. He had heard it was quick-footed; could catch birds mid-flight. But when he saw the cat — rarer to spot than a tiger in the wild — he knew his life was about to change.
Unperturbed by the human eyes on them, the cat and her two cubs slunk along the grasslands of Ranthambore. “Isko chodho, tiger dikhao.” Leave this and show us the tiger, the tourists whined, but Khandal didn’t move. He sent the tourists away in another jeep and waited. One of the cubs was trying to tear apart the leathery skin of a monitor lizard. When he failed after numerous attempts over twenty minutes, his sister deftly chewed the lizard open and relished a part of the meat, leaving some for the sibling.
Khandal recognised that the animal was a medium-sized cat. Long legs, long canine teeth and a robust build, it was a caracal or siya ghosh in Hindi.
A few minutes later, the mother cat snarled — it was time to go.
Khandal’s first sighting of the caracal had whetted his appetite for an eternal chase. Today, he is among the few caracal experts in India. But even he has spotted the cat only five times in twenty years, compared to the thousand times he claims to have spotted a tiger. The cat’s uniform golden or sandy coat means he can’t tell one caracal apart from another — except once. “A caracal had an injury on its ear, so we called it kankatta (called so because of its cut ear) and identified it many times on camera traps”.
Caracals are widely distributed across Asia, North Africa and at least 36 Sub-Saharan African countries. India forms the cat’s easternmost fringe — and here, the animal becomes rare. Listed as a species of ‘least concern’ around the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the caracal is endangered in India. It’s a Schedule I species in the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) which provides the cat the highest level of protection from hunting and harvesting in the country. Only a handful of researchers have studied this cat in India, a task made formidable because there are no captive caracals in the country. The cat is nocturnal and elusive. For how rarely it’s seen in India, some might even dismiss it as mythical. But biologists like Khandal are hooked — trying to sneak up behind it like a cat on mice.
In 2020, Khandal and his co-researchers, released a paper on the “historical and current extent of occurrence of the caracal in India”. They collated 134 reports mentioning caracal sightings from 1616 to 2020 to complete the study. Since 2001, the caracal’s presence has been reported in three states with only two possible viable populations: Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve and its contiguous areas in Rajasthan and the Kutch region of Gujarat, both preferred because of their “dry habitat.” But this wasn’t always the case. Till 2001, they foundthat the caracal was reported in 13 Indian states — and before that it was found by the side of humans.
The gift of the royals
“The children were not allowed to come close. They watched their father care for the cats from a distance.” Wildlife biologist Shekhar Kolipaka was surveying caracals in Madhya Pradesh when he heard Gaffoor’s childhood tale of the caracal. Then an elderly man, the late Gaffoor, a caretaker of the Ajaigarh palace in Panna district, recalled to Kolipaka how caracals were palace pets, looked after by his father.
Swift and fearsome hunters, caracals often accompanied humans to hunt gazelles and hares. Along with the cheetah, they were one of the two cats to be used by human beings for hunting, according to Divya Bhanu Sinh, author and former Vice President of the Bombay Natural History Society. The caracal’s reputation as a coursing animal was furthered by none other than the Mughal Emperor Akbar. “As a result, royal books that mentioned how to breed or medically treat a cheetah also mentioned caracals,” Sinh said. But the spotlight remained firmly on the now-extinct cheetah with references to caracals crowded in the margin.
Caracals no longer walk the palaces of Ajaigarh, nor do they have a patron as influential as Emperor Akbar. Even among researchers who study it, few have seen one. Kolipaka saw a caracal fleetingly — caught in a spotlight during a night survey. And his colleague, Ashish Jangid, has never spotted one. He is currently expanding his study area to Kuno National Park intending to solve an enduring puzzle: why are no caracals spotted in the forests of Madhya Pradesh when the climatic and biological conditions are the same as Ranthambore? “I’ve looked at caracals in Central India for a long time,” Kolipaka said. “Gradually they’ve become extremely rare. I haven’t found them in my study areas in the last few years.” Self-admittedly, Kolipaka’s surveys have limited reach, but even the Madhya Pradesh government, he said, has failed to find any evidence of caracals in their state.
Away from the tiger mania of Ranthambore, the few surviving caracals have their own sneaky passages and hideaways that remain invisible to humans. The only study estimating the occupancy and abundance of caracals in Ranthambore by Singh et al., finds them “rare in this landscape in terms of detectability and distribution.” Using a camera trap sampling survey, the study found caracal abundance to be around 28 (∼28.17±3.02) individuals in the study area. “Based on the total area available for caracals (588 square km), the average expected density was 4.8 caracals per 100 square km.” This number is low compared to densities of 23–47 individuals per 100 square km in Postberg Nature Reserve, South Africa or 20 per 100 square km in Aravah Valley, Israel, according to the study. A report by Manoj Parashar, former Field Director of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve also placed the caracal population in the reserve at 18-35 individuals, but details on how they arrived at this number remain unconvincing.
“There is no definite idea of the population or the habitat of the caracal,” T.C.Verma, the current Field Director of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, said. He recommended a long-term study on caracals but admitted that no such initiatives are planned for the caracal.
Researchers agree that habitat loss for the caracal, like for many other species, might be contributing to its dwindling numbers. In the semi-arid and arid tracts of western India, where the caracal lives, there has been a vast expansion of land under irrigated agriculture over the decades. This changing land use has also affected food patterns. The caracal’s diet — formerly understood as constituting birds — is now majorly made of rodents.
Then there is the question of territory. “A caracal also needs large tracts of land free from other predators like tigers or leopards,” Khandal said — something that’s impossible with given the current focus on conservation of the big cat.
In the absence of a long-term study or a government programme, saving the enigmatic cat is left to chance. When reminded of the fate of the cheetah in India, forest officials stir awake and focus on the population of individual caracals; an approach Khandal finds flawed. “How many caracals is not important, what is important is to focus on what is its main habitat as well as threats to its survival.”
For now, few caracals roam the country — watching humans while remaining out of sight and purring into the night.
Khandal, D., I. Dhar & G.V. Reddy (2020). Historical and current extent of occurrence of the Caracal (Caracal caracal, Schreber, 1776) (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) in India. Journal of Threatened Taxa 12(16): 17173–17193. htps://doi.org/10.11609/jot.64188.8.131.5273-17193
Singh, Randeep & Qureshi, Qamar & Sankar, Kalyansundram & Krausman, Paul & Goyal, Surendra. (2015). Estimating occupancy and abundance of caracal in a semi-arid habitat, Western India. European Journal of Wildlife Research. 61. 10.1007/s10344-015-0956-y.
Mukherjee, Shomita & Goyal, Surendra & Johnsingh, A. & Leite Pitman, Renata. (2004). The importance of rodents in the diet of jungle cat (Felis chaus), caracal (Caracal caracal) and golden jackal (Canis aureus) in Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, India. Journal of Zoology. 262. 405 – 411. 10.1017/S0952836903004783.
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Banner image: Caracals are an elusive and shy species, which makes it difficult to count their numbers in the wild. Photo by Bernard Dupont/ Wikimedia Commons