Friday, 13 February 2015

Who's who: India

Asia is where the cats are. Counting (as discussed previously) the Chinese mountain cat as a subspecies of the wildcat, Asia is home to twenty of the world's thirty-six species of cat. Twelve of them are found in Asia alone.

One country, because of its size and its huge range of habitat and altitude, has more cats than any other: India. In this wonderful place, there live no fewer than fifteen species of cat, with a sixteenth, the cheetah, having been hunted to extinction as recently as the 1960s.

From next week, I shall be in India for two months, visiting some of its most spectacular and cat-blessed regions. I shall not, however, be in the humid forests of northeast India this year, so I will have no chance of seeing the Asian (Indochinese) clouded leopard, the Asiatic golden cat or the marbled cat. I shall also be out of the Indian range of the fishing cat, which lives in the wet grasslands and forests of the Gangetic Plain, eastern India and the northeast. Finally, I have effectively no chance of seeing the world's smallest cat, the rusty-spotted, or indeed the leopard cat. Both of these species are found in central India, where I shall visit four parks, but they are nocturnal and night drives are forbidden. Night walks in tiger country are generally considered foolish.

(In Borneo in April, however, I have an excellent chance of seeing leopard cats and a slim chance of meeting a marbled cat. But more on that anon.)

The cats whose ranges I shall visit in India this year, several of which I would be staggeringly lucky to see, are these:


Snow leopard Panthera uncia

The snow leopard occurs sparsely over a huge range in twelve countries of Asia. Most associated with high mountains, and found at elevations up to 6,000m, in many areas snow leopards move to relatively lower elevations in winter, driven by deep snow on the mountaintops and the altitudinal migration of their sheep and goat prey. They are superbly adapted for their environment, with excellent camouflage, huge paws for walking in snow, expanded nasal cavities to warm mountain-cold air, and very long tails for balance in precipitous terrain and for use as mufflers around their noses as they sleep. Mating occurs from January to March and - here's the reason we look for them in February - is accompanied by a spike in diurnal activity and vocalisation. Cubs are born high in the mountains in summer, after a gestation of around 100 days. Through conflict with humans and their livestock and the gradual development of its remote habitat, the snow leopard is threatened across its range. Between four and six-and-a-half thousand snow leopards are thought to exist in the wild and the species is classified as endangered by the IUCN.

To behold a snow leopard is to understand the beauty of nature, to treasure it, and to fight for its survival.

George Schaller
Tibet Wild - A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World

Snow leopard in Ladakh, February 2014.
Image by Kenny Ross.

Tiger Panthera tigris

The tiger is likewise endangered, though three of its surviving subspecies are critically endangered. Three other subspecies have recently become extinct. Throughout its range, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tiger's habitat was destroyed, and the species itself was systematically eradicated. Remaining populations are under severe threat from poaching for skins and quack medicines.

In India alone it is estimated that in 1900 there may have been 40,000 tigers. Today, inasmuch as anywhere is a stronghold for this beleaguered, beautiful animal, it is India still. Recent news is encouraging. In 2008 the census of Indian tigers found an estimated 1,411. Census data released in late January 2015 suggest the country may now hold as many as 2,226. The world population is thought to be between 3,200 and 4,000, making India critical for the tiger's global survival.

Perhaps the most striking and instantly recognisable of cats, the tiger exercises great power over the human psyche. It is nonetheless surprisingly varied across its range, with great differences in size between the huge Amur and squat Sumatran subspecies; and considerable difference in coat colour and stripe pattern too. Predictably, across the once vast range of this great cat there is also tremendous variation in habitat and prey. In central India, where we shall be looking for tigers (and it has been my privilege to see them many times in the past decade) their chief prey are deer, including chital, sambar and barking deer, and wild boar and gaur.

The male tiger Munna in Kanha National Park in November 2008.
He is readily recognised by having CAT written across his forehead.
This was the first time I met him; subsequently I saw him many times
until March 2012 when I was last in Kanha. In summer 2014 I heard he was well.
Image by Anne-Marie Kalus.

Leopard Panthera pardus

We know the leopard already from Tanzania. Whereas in Africa it occurs beside the lion, in much of India it lives in the shadow of the tiger, though, to a much smaller extent, the lion is found here too. While widely persecuted, leopards have survived near people more successfully in India than tigers, with urban leopards reported not infrequently and cases of leopards hunting dogs and livestock in rural villages still common. Leopards range in India from semi-arid regions at the edges of deserts to dense humid forests in the southwest and northeast. They are found at sea level and up to 3,000 metres of altitude in the Himalayas. Over this range they prey on many species including peafowl, deer, antelopes, monkeys and small mammals.

Those who have never seen a leopard under favourable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of colouring, of this the most graceful and the most beautiful of all animals in our Indian Jungles.

Jim Corbett 
Man-Eaters of Kumaon

Leopard in Pench National Park, November 2008.
Image by Anne-Marie Kalus.

Lion Panthera leo

Lions once occurred widely across northwest and central India, in generally drier, spinier habitats than those favoured by the tiger. Their range stretched from here to Iran and Iraq. Today, alas, Asian lions are found only in the Gir Forest in the west of Gujarat where they persisted almost by accident. Here in one fragile park there are around 350 cats, all descended from fewer than twenty which existed in 1900. Their habitat is restricted and they come into frequent conflict with humans, especially as they regularly hunt cattle and buffalos.

Physically Asian lions are very similar to African, though a hairy flap of skin hangs from the males' bellies and their manes are often less dense.


Caracal caracal caracal

The gorgeous caracal is largely African and Middle Eastern but reaches the extreme eastern limit of its distribution in northwest India. In Gujarat I will be within its range but it is very unlikely I will see one.

Cross your fingers people.

Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx

It is equally unlikely I will see a lynx. This hugely widespread cat reaches the southernmost limit of its distribution in the high Himalayas. It occurs in Hemis National Park, Ladakh, in the areas in which I will be looking for snow leopards. However, my colleagues there report having seen it very few times in their lives, most often in their home villages. The Eurasian lynx is the only one of the four species in the genus Lynx which is not a specialist hunter of rabbits and hares, generally preferring small ungulates. The identifying features of the lynx are its bob tail, its black ear tassels and the thick pointed sideburns which frame its face.

Pallas' cat Otocolobus manul

Pallas' cat, also known as the manul, is a squat, densely-furred mountain cat with a broad, flat face and small ears to avoid heat loss. It occurs over a large area of montane Asia, hunting small animals such as pikas, hares and chukar. It is found in the extreme north of India, in the region in which I will be looking for snow leopards, but is only exceptionally seen here.

Jungle cat Felis chaus

Jungle cats are similar in shape to domestic cats, though larger and rangier with relatively big ears. Their stripes are restricted to their shanks and tails and the rest of the coat is golden-grey or brown. They occur widely from Egypt, through parts of the Middle East and southwest Asia, to the Indian Subcontinent and southeast Asia. The jungle cat is most associated with grassland, wetland and scrub, rarely using tall forest. Mainly a hunter of small mammals, across its huge range it also takes reptiles, birds, fish and insects. I have many times seen the जुंगली बिल्ली in central India and have excellent chances of seeing one again in March.

Wildcat Felis silvestris

The last cat which I might encounter on my Indian travels is the wildcat, in this case the Asian or desert subspecies Felis silvestris ornata. In India wildcats are found only in the northwest, covering a similar range to the caracal; I will be in good habitat for them in parts of Gujarat.

Keep those fingers crossed, people. Keep those fingers crossed.

Thanks to my friends Anne-Marie Kalus and Kenny Ross for the use of the beautiful photos they took watching cats by my side.


  1. Everything crossed for you Nick. Have a great trip.

  2. Yes, have a great trip Nick. Will be following you on here. Stay safe. x