Hybridisation, roadkills are major threats for the Indian desert cat population

Asiatic Wildcat with its kitten in the desert of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Photo by Rasdheshyam Bishnoi.
  • Wildlife experts have reported a decline in sightings of the Asiatic wildcat, also known as the Indian desert cat, in western India, attributing it to habitat loss and fall in population.
  • Hybridisation of the species with the domestic cat poses risk in species conservation and leads to the loss of genetic material.
  • More in-depth, long-term study is needed to understand the Indian desert cat’s ecological role and behaviour and consequential conservation action.

In the sweltering heat of Rajasthan, two naturalists patiently wait in front of a huge cactus bush, cameras at the ready and eyes peeled for a sighting of the elusive Indian desert cat.

Four hours later, the cat steps out from underneath the cactus and the two begin clicking photos frantically. “It used to be pretty common in the region but now we have to wait for hours on end to even get one look at it,” said Radheshyam Bishnoi, a wildlife photographer and conservationist based in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.

The habitat of the Indian desert cat (Felis lybica ornata), also known as the Asiatic wildcat or Asian steppe-wildcat, extends from the eastern Caspian region, north to Kazakhstan, into Pakistan, western India, western China and Mongolia.

The Indian desert cat is a feline known for its soft, sandy-grey spotted pelt with dark bands on the upper side of its fore and hind legs and slender tail with spots near its base and a black tip. While the individuals found in India and Pakistan have a sandy appearance, those in Central Asia have a more greyish-yellow or reddish pelt.

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The cat thrives in arid habitats, capable of surviving without water for long periods. The cat is listed in Schedule I of The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act and Appendix II of CITES. It is also listed under the ‘Least Concern’ category in the IUCN Red List, with a population of over 20,000 globally as of 2002.

Wildlife biologists and conservationists in India, in recent times, have recorded fewer sightings of the cat, which once freely roamed the deserts of Rajasthan. This could indicate a fall in population.

Wildlife experts attribute the decline to anthropogenic factors like farming and construction activities in arid landscapes, scrub deserts and wastelands.

Indian desert cat camouflaging in dry grass in the desert of Rajasthan, India. Photo by Radheshyam Bishnoi.
Indian desert cat camouflaging in dry grass in the desert of Rajasthan, India. Photo by Radheshyam Bishnoi.

Hybridisation with the common housecat

The Cat Specialist Group (CSG), an international body working for the conservation of feline species across the world, states that the gene pool of the Asiatic wildcat is threatened by domestic cats owing to hybridisation. “Hybridisation was reported from Pakistan and Central Asia and is most likely also a problem in India. There may be very few genetically pure populations of wildcats remaining,” notes CSG.

“In my research in the last five years, I have seen several cases where the Indian desert cat has mated with the common housecat but as the kittens look more similar to the wild species than the domestic cat, it is hard to tell the difference. In the absence of proper scientific studies and DNA analysis, it is very difficult to gauge the actual number of these hybrid offspring,” says Sumit Dookia, Assistant Professor, University School of Environment Management, GGS Indraprastha University, who has worked extensively on the species and seconds the findings of CSG.

Domestic cat on a street in Mumbai. Representative image. Photo by Andrew Thomas/Wikimedia .
Domestic cat on a street in Mumbai. Representative image. Photo by Andrew Thomas/Wikimedia.

Asiatic wildcat is an ancestor of the domestic cat, making them close relatives and fit for breeding.

“The main reasons for this hybridisation are habitat fragmentation and the poor state of corridors. There are very few pockets that are still home to a sizeable population, but these too face challenges to sustain a genetically viable population,” adds Dookia, citing his research findings from his paper Habitat Suitability Analysis of Asiatic Steppe Wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata) in Thar Desert of Rajasthan in 2023, which is not yet published but accessed by Mongabay-India. Felis lybica ornata is also known as Felis silvestris ornata. The Asiatic wildcat and African wildcat are groups of wildcats, with a wide distribution from African countries to European and Asian countries, that includes many populations. Such scenarios, where many different population types occur, is called Polytypic Species Complex and taxonomists regularly debate on their scientific names and species placement, explained Dookia.

Similar findings were enlisted in a 2008 paper, investigating whether domestic cats threatening the genetic integrity of wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris) in Iberian Peninsula, published by the National Library of Medicine. The study spoke about the threat of hybridisation in the European wildcat and the impact on conservation after studying the population in Hungary, Scotland, Portugal, Italy and Germany. “The unknown effects of long-term sympatry between the two subspecies resulted in a global concern regarding the genetic and taxonomic status of the European wildcat,” it states. The study warns that continuous hybridisation over a long period can lead to a “deep and irreversible genetic pollution of wild populations” which may threaten the survival of wildcats in Europe.

Similar consequences might ensue for the Asian wildcat if hybridisation remains unchecked and no efforts are made to protect its habitat. In the dearth of long-term scientific studies, it will be difficult to understand the level of hybridisation and its consequences, Dookia adds.

An Indian Desert Cat in its natural habitat in Rajasthan, India. Photo by Radheshyam Bishnoi.
An Indian Desert Cat in its natural habitat in Rajasthan, India. Photo by Radheshyam Bishnoi.

Negligence of the species over the decades

Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj, Deputy Director General, Regional Office, MOEFCC, Chandigarh, began observing the decline in sightings in the late 2000s. To keep a tab on the number of times and the kind of landscape where he saw the cat, he maintained a personal record of sightings.

“There are several factors, with roadkills being the biggest threat to the population of these felines, which is leading to a steep decline in population,” he says. “The already fragmented habitat is crisscrossed by roads and highways so when these shy creatures move about, they get run over by vehicles.”

He adds, “I started documenting sightings in various locations of Rajasthan in 2010 and until 2018 had only spotted the Indian desert cat 26 times, with two being camera trap footages. The maximum sightings were in Desert National Park.” Other sightings of the feline, as per Bhardwaj’s personal records that he shared with Mongabay India, were from Tal Chaper Wildlife Sanctuary, Sundra in Barmer district, Sariska Tiger Reserve and on the outskirts of Jodhpur.

He adds that negligence of the species, along with other small cats, was one of the reasons for the decline in population. “Even when I was posted in Rajasthan, we never conducted a population census for the Indian desert cat. In the last two decades, the numbers have reduced drastically but we have no proper records.”

The IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group adds that while poaching of the animal for its pelt has reduced, some pelts appear in local markets. It also lists rodenticides and snares for other animals as threats that lead to the unintentional killing of the species.

“We need a more in-depth, long-term study to comprehensively understand the Indian desert cat’s ecological role and behaviour. Only then will be able to design effective conservation strategies,” urges Dookia.

Read more: The silent trade of elusive small cats in Mizoram


Banner image: Asiatic wildcat with its kitten in the desert of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Photo by Radheshyam Bishnoi.

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