Rusty-spotted cat conservation hinges on dedicated research and management plans

  • The shy and nocturnal rusty-spotted cat, considered the smallest cat species in the world, remains understudied in India.
  • While there are national projects to conserve important wildcat landscapes and captive breeding programmes to improve the population of small cats, some wildlife experts say that the conservation practices for small cats are too tiger-centric, which may not be conducive for the rusty-spotted cat.
  • Researchers suggest utilising camera traps, GPS mapping, scat analysis and radio telemetry to monitor small cats and learn more about their role in the ecosystem, and call for more in-depth studies.

Rusty-spotted cats are believed to be fairly distributed in many parts of India, and Nepal and Sri Lanka, but detailed information about their behaviour, habitat, and their overall role in the ecosystem is lacking. Although isolated attempts have been made recently in different forest areas to ascertain population density, extensive and in-depth studies are needed to formulate efficient conservation strategies, say wildlife experts.

Rusty-spotted cats are considered the world’s smallest cat species, weighing less than 1.5 kilograms, about half the size of a domestic cat. They have a fawn-grey coloured coat with their eponymous rusty spots on their back and flanks. The species has been recorded in dry deciduous and semi-deciduous forests in northern and central India, Western Ghats, Kachchh and Rajasthan, and peninsular India, besides Nepal and Sri Lanka. It is classified as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A rusty-spotted cat in a zoo in Frankfurt. The small cat species is distributed across India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka but detailed information about their behaviour, habitat, and their overall role in ecosystem service is lacking. Photo by NasserHalaweh/Wikimedia Commons.

Shomita Mukherjee, a member of the IUCN cat specialist group says, “These cats are shy and nocturnal and difficult to study. After years of research, we have only a little amount of data about them. There is no baseline, we need more research.”

Only earlier this year, India’s environment ministry launched a nation-wide project to study small cat species, including rusty-spotted cats, to learn more about their behaviour and distribution.

Studying the shifty small cat

In the past, a few dedicated studies have been conducted on the rusty-spotted cat in India. Between 2017 and 2019, Mukherjee conducted a project on small wild cats in Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) near Mumbai, with the participation of 35 citizen volunteers. The volunteers collected scat samples, placed camera traps and participated in data analysis.

The elusive nature of the small wild cats makes them hard to spot, and therefore study. Mukherjee suggests utilising camera traps that are used for tiger census with small grid sizes, to study the home range movement of small cats including the rusty-spotted cats. “We can use GPS mapping to know about their locations and density. Moreover, DNA extracted from their scat can be helpful to know what species of rodents they eat. We had found broken jaws in one such scat in SGNP. Such kind of information is crucial,” she explains.

While the prey base of rusty-spotted cats is not properly documented, their diet primarily includes rodents and small reptiles. Another study in Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha National Park, conducted from 2014 to 2018, recorded the cats carrying rodent kills in the camera trap images.

Although not much is known about its prey base, the rusty-spotted cat’s diet consists of rodents and small reptiles. Photo by Radheshyam Bishnoi.

Researchers and wildlife experts use tools such as GPS mapping, scat analysis, camera traps (usually as by-catch data from camera-trap exercises to ascertain tiger population), and radiotelemetry to study small  cats.

“Unlike tigers, we do not know much about the ecological significance of rusty-spotted cats. Genetic analysis of its scat can help us assess their food habits and prey,” says Dharmendra Khandal, conservation biologist at the NGO Tiger Watch.

Though elusive, rusty-spotted cats are widely distributed, Khandal adds. “We compiled data about sightings of these cats in Rajasthan. They were found in rocky areas and make smooth movement through thorny bushes, shrubs and thickets.”

The study from Kanha also suggested that rusty-spotted cats have made forested areas their habitat, which was surprising as it was previously thought that the species was only found in rocky terrains, not-so-dense forests, and near crop fields.

Read more: Small cats in big trouble: Why we need to save these elusive endangered species

In the name of the tiger

The study from Kanha also highlights another aspect of small cat conservation attempts. Some researchers believe that conservation practices for small cats are too tiger-centric, which may not be conducive for the rusty-spotted cat. The focus on enhancing the tiger population through forest management and prey increase does not bode well for the survival of rusty-spotted cats, finds the  study.

“Rusty-spotted cats are protected and do well under tiger as the umbrella species for biodiversity conservation. However, things become concerning when protected areas are artificially manipulated to enhance the tiger population,” says Y.V. Jhala, former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), one of the authors of the study.

“Grasslands are created to increase the number of herbivores like spotted deer in order to increase the number of tigers. However, this kind of management is detrimental for rusty-spotted cats,” he continues.

The study argues that the highly focal approach of how these reserves are intensively managed to enhance tiger and prey populations, may not be sufficient for some species that prefer habitat and prey that are different from those of the tiger. “It is, therefore, important to conduct in-depth studies in tiger reserves on other less charismatic species, including the rusty-spotted cat, to ensure that the umbrella benefits of protecting and conserving the tiger are spread across the entire biota,” it states.

Conservation measures

All small cats are important from an ecological perspective and are sentinels of climate change, says Rajesh Gopal, Secretary General of Global Tiger Forum (GTF).

GTF and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), with state governments of Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, launched a project called, ‘Strengthening conservation and resilience of globally significant wild cat landscapes through a focus on small cat and leopard conservation‘, to conserve the globally significant wild cat landscapes in northern, north-eastern and western India through a landscape conservation approach. “Our focus is on how to protect small cats, including rusty-spotted cats, both inside and outside protected areas. The programme involves the study of habit and habitat of these cats, to draft a conservation action plan,” Gopal says.

Community stewardship is an important part of the programme. “It is a pilot project. We will see how to involve stakeholders including people in the conservation efforts and protection of the small cats,” Gopal says.

Khandal points out that perhaps an important first step should be creating awareness among village residents outside protected areas and farmers, who cannot identify rusty-spotted cats. “They mistake rusty-spotted cats for house cats. It is the same for desert cats as well,” he says. Small wild cats in India, often become victims of retaliatory killing or dislocation due to misidentification as more dangerous cats.

As another conservation measure, the SGNP has initiated an enriched captive breeding programme for rusty-spotted cats, possibly the first such programme for a small cat in India. This breeding programme offers conditions/surroundings in captive breeding, which mimic the cat’s wild habitat. Experts from the UK are assisting the SGNP in the ‘enrichment’ of the breeding facility.

As of January 2023, the captive breeding facility had two kittens of rusty-spotted cats, that were rescued from Maharashtra’s Satara. “Unless a conducive environment is provided, rusty-spotted cats will not breed. We have mimicked natural conditions in the new breeding facility, such as a particular temperature, hollow logs, among others,” says an SGNP official, who wished to remain anonymous.

A conservation programme announcement at Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). SGNP has initiated an enriched captive breeding programme for rusty-spotted cats. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Previous attempts at the captive breeding of rusty-spotted cats in regular cages in SGNP, did not end in success. The officials are hopeful that captive breeding in the new facility will be successful. “Our objective of captive breeding is conservation and ensuring an adequate population. The cats can then be released in areas where the population has dwindled,” the official adds.

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


Banner image: A rusty-spotted cat in Anamali Hills. Photo by Divya Mudappa/Wikimedia Commons.

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