As caracals inch towards extinction, path to conserving the wild cat remains unclear

The caracal is listed as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List in India and falls in the Schedule-I of the the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. Photo by Gobind Sagar Bharadwaj.

  • An estimated 50 caracals are left in the small clusters in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, making caracal the second cat species after the Asiatic cheetah to reach the brink of extinction in India.
  • Factors leading to the decline in the population are yet to be identified. Though experts speculate it could be a species-specific disease more data is needed to back their speculations.
  • In 2021, the National Biodiversity Wildlife Board announced a Species Recovery Plan for the conservation and population revival of 22 species in India, including the caracal.

With an estimated 50 individuals across the country, concentrated in the western parts of India, the caracal (Caracal caracal schmitzi), a small wild cat noted for its long-tufted ears and a reddish-tan or sandy-brown coat, is critically endangered and perhaps on the brink of extinction in India. Wildlife experts and scientists fear that after the Asiatic cheetah, that was declared extinct in 1952, the caracal will be the second cat species to be wiped out from the country.

As per estimates in a 2015 study, some 28 caracal individuals are found in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan and scientists estimate around 20 in Kutch in Gujarat. These are reported to be the only two populations of the cat that remain in India.

According to the IUCN Cat Specialist Group the feline, with distinctive black markings on its face and white circles around the eyes and mouth, is native to Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and arid areas of Pakistan and northwestern India.

In India, only two populations of the caracal remain in Kutch, Gujarat and in Ranthambhore, Rajasthan. Photo by Gobind Sagar Bharadwaj.

While the species is listed under ‘least concern’ under the IUCN Red List globally, it has been listed as ‘near threatened’ by the Conservation Assessment and Management Plan (CAMP) and IUCN Red List assessment in India. The species is included in the Schedule-I category of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, offering it the highest possible protection.

“Historically, the caracal was found all across Central India and the Indo-Gangetic plains. But there has been no sighting of the animal in these regions for the last 40 years,” says Y. V. Jhala, former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). “We have extensively tried to camera trap (caracal) in Kuno National Park since 2006 but it all was in vain.”

In 2022, WII along with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Madhya Pradesh Forest Department and Leo Foundation of The Netherlands conducted a study in nine states – Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – on the presence of caracals.

The study indicated that areas in Kutch (Gujarat), Aravalli mountains (Rajasthan), Malwa plateau (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) and Bundelkhand region (Madhya Pradesh) were potentially suitable habitats for caracals. It further identified the Ranthambore-Kuno Landscape (RKL), which falls in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, as a highly potential caracal habitat area and a suitable site for the conservation of the feline. The Madhya Pradesh Biodiversity Board is also undertaking a study on caracals in this landscape.

Uncertainty about population decline

Though the caracals have not been spotted from the Central India range for over four decades, scientists and wildlife experts are yet to determine a reason for the decline in the population. Jhala says that while habitat loss is a common factor for all wildlife, other species of cats are doing relatively well, but the same cannot be said for the caracal.

“Protected areas like Gandhisagar National Park and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary all had caracals and the prey base here is high. So, there is no question of threat to habitat or lack of prey but it is still not understood as to why the population is falling so heavily even in these protected areas,” Jhala adds.

Subharanjan Sen, Assistant Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Madhya Pradesh, echoing Jhala says, “No one knows why the cats are not being spotted anymore. It might be due to a disease but we aren’t sure.”

Jhala has the same speculations. However, he adds that while a general disease would have affected other species of lesser cats too, if there is a disease that is leading to the vanishing of the caracals, it has to be species-specific. “These are speculations but we need to look into it to determine the root cause before we can start thinking about conservation strategies,” he says.

A caracal in the Rajbagh area of Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan, 2010. Photo by Gobind Sagar Bharadwaj.

Initially, large-scale hunting and illegal trade were the two main causes for the decline but Sen says that poaching and seizure of the cat have not been reported for many decades. He added that while the cat had not been spotted for a long time in MP, they might have been looking at the wrong places all this while.

“The forest department is mostly focused on dense forests but the caracal is found in open forests and scrublands. It is a species of wasteland, which generally falls under the revenue department’s jurisdiction, so we might have missed them as we did not set camera traps in these areas,” he says.

Challenges in conservation

In 2021, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) announced a Species Recovery Plan for the conservation and population revival of 22 species in India, including the caracal.

As per the project plan, Ranthambhore is working on the conservation of the species with a focus on strengthening government management of wild cats and habitats by enhancing private sector partnerships, regional collaboration and knowledge transfer and learning supported by gender mainstreaming and monitoring and evaluation.

The plan talks about developing conservation master plans, monitoring protocols for wild cats, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and strengthening wildlife-related law enforcement.

Randeep Singh, Associate Professor at Amity Institute of Forestry and Wildlife, Amity University, Noida who will be undertaking the study in RKL later this year told Mongabay-India that the project will start in the ravines of Chambal and Sawai as these are considered to be the potential habitat for the species.

“We will set up camera traps in parts of Rajasthan and Kuno National Park to study the population and will then devise strategies for conservation. First and foremost, it is important to know the number of individuals present in the area,” says Singh.

A caracal captured on a camera trap at the Kaliadevi Karauli, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Photo by Rajasthan Forest Department.

Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) of Madhya Pradesh, J. S. Chouhan also feels that the survey of potential habitats is necessary before designing conservation strategies. “If the researchers find that there is even a small population in the landscape that they are planning to undertake the study in, I am sure the MP Forest Department will be more than willing to dedicate more than one sanctuary in the region to protect the species. But since it has not been spotted in MP for many decades, on some level, I feel that it is more like a distant dream,” Chouhan says.

The Rajasthan Forest Department is also planning to start a breeding programme for caracals but with a lot of challenges and technicalities involved, the project is in its initial phase. However, the conservation process will only begin once the major threats leading to the decline are identified.

However, Jhala feels that while a breeding programme might help stabilise the population, it will cause a decline in wild species.

“Once the threats are identified then we can design strategies to address them. But even in a breeding centre, we need to have a good founder population before we begin with the programme. If there are less than 50 individuals remaining, it is hard to start breeding them,” adds Jhala, highlighting some major roadblocks in establishing a caracal breeding centre.

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Banner image: The caracal is listed as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List in India and falls in the Schedule-I of the the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. Photo by Gobind Sagar Bharadwaj.

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