In the murky depths of the Sundarbans, a smaller set of pawprints are interspersed with those of the magnificent swamp tigers of this mangrove forest. Bright eyes gleam from beneath the complex root systems of the Sundari mangrove trees. Fish swim lazily in dark pools of water, unaware of the predator lurking above. Night time in the swamp forests, you see, belongs to the ultimate predator – the wild cat.
India is home to 15 species of wild cats, five of which are classified as big cats – the Bengal tiger, the leopard, the Asiatic lion, the snow leopard, and the clouded leopard. The rest of these wild cats are the small cats. But these tenacious predators are proof that size is not a good indicator of ability; indeed, these small cats are adapted to a wide range of extreme habitats, some which are inhospitable to even the ubiquitous, adaptable leopard.
Wetlands across India are shrinking rapidly, but regardless host a range of fauna, from birds to fish to river dolphins to crocodilians to amphibians to mammals. And among the mammalian fauna found in and around wetlands are three unique small cats – the leopard cat, the jungle cat, and the fishing cat. Read on to learn more about these little predators and their fight for survival as their primary habitat – wetlands – slowly disappear.
The Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis):
Spotted and hard to spot, the leopard cat reigns supreme across grasslands, shrubland, tropical rainforests, plantations of oil palm and sugarcane, and inland wetlands in India. This hardy cat can be found up to 3,420 m altitude in the Himalayas, as was documented in Nepal in 2009, and one individual was even recorded at an elevation of 4,474 m in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area (Thapa et al. 2013). Leopard cats are excellent swimmers and highly arboreal, preferring to rest in trees much like their larger cousin, the leopard. These cats are primarily nocturnal, and unlike other cats, do not “play” with their food. Their diet largely consists of birds (Sunquist & Sunquist 2002).
Major threats to the leopard cat are urban development, linear intrusions like roads and railways, logging, and the illegal wildlife trade. Development reduces the availability of habitat for these secretive cats to survive and breed. Linear intrusions fragment larger tracts of habitat and also increase the chances of these cats becoming roadkill, especially at night in regions where night traffic bans are not in existence in India (Baskaran & Boominathan 2010). Logging and poaching remain two of the primary threats; this cat’s fur and internal organs are highly sought after for traditional clothing and medicines in Southeast Asia and China. The leopard cat is protected on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) Appendix II and is listed as Least Concern on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Taxa. In Thailand, it is listed on the CITES Appendix I given the drastic decline of this persecuted felid in the country. Scientists and conservationists need a better understanding of this cat’s use of agricultural plantations and the effect of habitat disturbance on its disturbance, feeding ecology, and use of habitat in order to better conserve the leopard cat.
The Jungle Cat (Felis chaus):
The most common small wildcat in India is the jungle cat, also known as the reed cat or the swamp cat. Jungle cats, contrary to their name, shun the rainforests of the Western Ghats and Northeast India or woodlands, preferring swamps, inland wetlands, and riparian areas with dense vegetation. This small cat is diurnal, unlike the tiger or the leopard, and rests in burrows, grass thickets, or scrub during the night. It is mostly carnivorous, though omnivorous behaviour has been observed. A study at Sariska Tiger Reserve deduced that rodents comprise 95 percent of its diet (Mukherjee et al. 2006). Unlike any other small cat, the swamp cat vocalizes before attacking when threatened and can produce small roars. The major competitor for the jungle cat across its habitats is the golden jackal (Canis aureus).
The jungle cat, like all other wild cats in India, faces a variety of threats. The primary threat is wetland destruction and draining, given that these cats rely upon the dense cover of wetland foliage to hunt and raise their young. Climate change has also led to a decline in wetland area. Dam construction also threatens jungle cats, as does pollution, more generally. Urbanization is an ever-present threat too. The wildlife trade of jungle cats was officially banned in 1979, but still occurs illegally in India. This wild cat is currently listed on the CITES Appendix II and is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Taxa. As its habitat continues to shrink and the illegal wildlife trade continues to proliferate, the fate of this currently-widespread wild cat is uncertain, but certainly not as assured as the conservation community would have us believe.
The Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus):
India’s only entirely wetland cat – the fishing cat – resides in all major wetland systems across the country. It can be found along streams, rivers, oxbow lakes, and in mangrove forests and swamplands. The fishing cat is the state animal of West Bengal and has a free reign of the Sundarbans, where it is well-suited to a life amidst mud, mangroves, and large stretches of water. Fish comprise 75 percent of this cat’s diet, and it can swim long distances, even completely under water. However, it is a dietary generalist and in West Bengal’s Howrah district, studies have shown that its diet consisted of rats and bandicoots (Adhya 2015). A unique anatomical fact about this cat is that its paws are less completely-webbed than those of the leopard cat, although this cat spends most of its time in and around the water.
Threats to the fishing cat are more directly-related to wetland health than threats to the jungle cat and the leopard cat. The conversion of wetlands and their pollution cause habitat quality to decline and reduce available habitat for this cat to breed. Overexploitation of fish stocks by local fishermen provides direct competition to the fishing cat. Additionally, the conversion of mangrove forests to aquaculture ponds poses a grave threat to this cat’s primary habitat and diet. Targeted killing is a threat to this cat as well, and it is protected on the CITES Appendix II throughout its range except in Bhutan and Vietnam, where it is not protected outside protected areas. The fishing cat is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. If we are to ensure the survival of the fishing cat, it is our responsibility to protect wetland ecosystems and promote sustainable fisheries management in our rivers and mangrove forests.
Call to Action:
During my time in the field of ecology, I have come to understand the role of predators in maintaining the health of ecosystems. Tigers, leopards, and dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) keep populations of wild herbivores such as sambar, gaur, and chital under control, thus maintaining the diversity of plant species required to sustain a vibrant ecosystem. Similarly, in our disappearing wetland ecosystems, these three small cats play the vital role of regulating populations of meso-carnivores such as rodents and thus promote wetland health. Their survival is closely tied to the conservation of their habitat. Unfortunately, in India today, wetlands are dismissed as unproductive swamps and drained to pave the way for urban development or converted to aquaculture ponds. If we continue to ignore the plight of our wetlands, we run the risk of losing our charismatic felids who call these delicate ecosystems home.
Featured Photograph by Neville Buck/National Geographic Society – click here to see his blog on these fascinating felids
To learn more about the Sundarbans, see my earlier blog post here and one on mangrove forests here
Watch this video by Nat Geo Wild on fishing cats hunting in the wild
This video, filmed by Sabyasachi Patra (Indiawilds), is a great glimpse into the life of the elusive jungle cat. Also, here is the link to his article on jungle cats.
Baskaran, N., & Boominathan, D. (2010). Road kill of animals by highway traffic in the tropical forests of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, southern India. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 2(3), 753-759.
Mukherjee, S., Goyal, S. P., Johnsingh, A. J. T., & Pitman, M. L. (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(4), 405-411.
Sunquist, M. & Sunquist, F. (2002). “Leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis Kerr, 1792″. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 225–232. ISBN 978-0-226-77999-7.
Thapa, K.; Pradhan, N. M. B.; Barker, J.; Dahal, M.; Bhandari, A. R.; Gurung, G. S.; Rai, D. P.; Thapa, G. J.; Shrestha, S.; Singh, G. R. (2013). “High elevation record of a leopard cat in the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, Nepal”. Cat News (58): 26–27.