Is the Enigmatic Caracal in Line to Becoming India’s Second Wild Cat Species Lost?

Divyajyoti Ganguly
A Caracal in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajashtan
Dharmendra Khandal
Caracals are very sensitive to habitat modification and their tolerance towards human interference is low.
Chained caracals in the heydays of hunting in India
Along with the the cheetah (on the cot) and the leopard, at the time of the Maharajas, three beautiful wildcats were tamed to assist on hunting trips.

…..a lithe fawn coloured body sprang into the air in a graceful arc.” writes B.P. Srivastava, Conservator of Forests in U.P. in the 1950s, while penning down his observation of a Caracal hunting a Partridge. He had later shot the animal for identification and further writes, “The face and body were cat-like but the tail was proportionately shorter…..The colour of the body was light fawn and the undersides white. The ears were much longer than in the felines and were pointed at the tips which ended in thin plumes of one inch long black hair. The size of the body was about the same as a jackal’s, but it was lower and therefore looked slightly more elongated.” Known to early naturalists as the Red Lynx, the Caracal in India indeed remains a mystery to science. It is now known that the Caracal, one amongst the 27 extant small wild cat species worldwide, is not a Lynx, but has its own separate lineage; the Caracal lineage. The ones who have sighted it in the wild claim that this feline possesses a magical ability to instantly vanish as it disappears seconds after getting spotted. I write this piece with the intent to introduce readers to this elusive species, reiterate its significance in Indian history and to finally conclude with why we need to bring this species under the spotlight of conservation in India.

Introducing the Caracal

Weighing as much as 18 kgs the Caracal is a mid-sized feline. Sleek and athletic-bodied, this feline has a uniformly coloured light brick-reddish coat devoid of markings while the white undersides exhibit small reddish stripes and spots. Black vertical marks above the eyes and also marking the sides of the nose assume a ‘V’ when the cat closes its eyes. Ears stand vertical and are long with dark silvery-black backsides and powered by 20 different muscles in 3 distinct groups that independently control the motion of each ear, enabling them to act like ‘super sensitive parabolic sound antennas’; prominent black ear tufts at the tips are known to detect distant as well as minute vibrations. Such a great amount of specialisation in the ears might make one wonder whether their use lies beyond just auditory function, and perhaps also in communication. Indeed, the Caracal is also known to use the myriad movements of its ears for intra-specific communication. However, the feature that makes this feline stand out amongst all its wild cousins is that it is THE athlete of the cat world. Strongly muscled, its tall rear limbs (longer in comparison to fore limbs) equips this animal with a super power: the rear limbs act like springs and can build enough momentum to launch its whole body as high as 10 feet above the ground in one jump! Studies in range countries like South Africa and Iran show that it relies primarily on rodents, lagomorphs and birds for food, however, the Caracal is amongst the few carnivores known to be capable enough to subdue prey much larger than its own size. Antelopes like Reedbuck in Africa and Chinkara and Blackbuck in India are also known to comprise the Caracal’s diet. Accounts indicate that the Caracal is a secondary burrow dweller. “….our observations suggest that Caracals could be using dens dug by Porcupines and Foxes…” says Dr. Nikunj Gajera, Scientist with the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE). Conclusive studies on the Caracal’s ecology are yet to be conducted. 

The Caracal’s current distribution is broad yet disproportionate across its range. In South Africa the Caracal occurs widely, however, its occurrence thins out and becomes more restricted as it becomes rare up north towards North Africa, into the Middle East all the way into western and parts of Central India (eastern most range limit) and extending up to Turkmenistan. Globally 9 subspecies are recognised and Caracal caracal schmitzi roams the arid and semi-arid lands of Arabia and India. With a short tail relative to body size, the Caracal has evolved to inhabit both flat and undulating terrain of dry, relatively open habitats like grasslands, thorny scrublands, semi-arid woodlands and vegetated rocky areas where it is presumed to be crepuscular to nocturnal in habit. This feline is adapted to thrive in a water scarce environment and derives most of its water requirements from its prey. In India discrete records suggest that parts of the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, U.P., Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh support habitat suitable for the Caracal. Old records also exist from Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha. Throughout its global range the Caracal has earned local names indicating a familiarity with the native community. Rooicat in South Africa, ‘Qara-Qulaq’ (Black Ears) in Arabic, ‘Harnotro’ (Killer of female Blackbuck or Chinkara; both with a similarity in coat colour with the Caracal) in Kachchhi, ‘Mor Maar Bagheri’ (Peacock killing wild cat) in Rajasthani and ‘Siyah-Gosh’(Black Ears) in Persian and Hindi are some of its regional names.  

Historical Significance of the Caracal in India

Parallel to the Cheetah’s, the Caracal also has a rich history in India. It used to be a favoured pet amongst the royalty, next only to the Cheetah, and has featured in Indian paintings dating as far back as the mid-1600s. Breeding the Cheetah in captivity was no easy task; females do not ovulate unless the males chase them for several miles, and a prehistoric population bottleneck had resulted in male Cheetahs having low sperm count. The Caracal, in this respect, fared quite well as it easily bred in captivity. Wild Caracals were captured and trained to hunt game such as kites at the Cheetah and Caracal Training Centre in Jaipur. However, unlike the well behaved and perfectly tamed dog-like Cheetah, the Caracal turned out to be hard to train and could never be totally subdued by its owner. “Lynxes [caracals] were said to have been kept and trained for hunting, like the hunting-leopard [cheetah],…..;and indeed the character of all is great irritability in confinement, and a mistrust towards their keepers, which is never entirely overcome.” asserts Sir William Jardine  in ‘The natural history of the Felinæ’ (1834). Until during the time of British India the Maharajas used to keep ‘packs’ of Caracals who were claimed to be used widely in cooperative hunting, which is surprising given that the Caracal is known to be solitary, with a pair only coming together for mating. “Akbar was fond of the siya¯h-gush” notes Thomas T Allsen in his book ‘The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History’ (2006). Much like the Cheetah, the Caracal used to be transported to hunting grounds hooded and leashed on a bullock cart, from where it was set after prey. Using its speed and agility, the cat would swiftly bring down large game birds like cranes, hares, antelopes and even foxes. “[t]he speed of the caracal, or Indian lynx, is, if possible, quicker in proportion than that of the chita. I saw one slipped at a grey fox [Bengal fox], and he ran into him as a dog would a rat.” writes travel writer G.T. Vigne. Accounts of the hunting methods of the so called ‘Hunting Caracals’ are many. Thomas T Allsen in his book ‘The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History’ (2006) notes that the Caracal hunted by “jumping on the fleeing prey’s back, where it reaches “forward to the Shoulders, and scratches their Eyes out, and gives the Hunters an easy Prey.”” Rev. John George Wood wrote in his  ‘Illustrated Natural History’ (1865): “…..; being trained to creep upon its prey and to spring from its place of concealment upon its unsuspecting quarry. When the trained Caracal seizes its prey it crouches to the earth, and lies motionless…” Following a successful hunt, accompanying royal recruits had the difficult job of retrieving the kill from an angry, ferocious predator. The predator would be offered a part of its kill as prize. On occasions the royals would set pet Caracals amongst a flock of pigeons and bet on the individual that would bring down the largest number of birds. As many as a dozen birds are reported to be knocked down by the victorious individual before the flock escaped. From all the several accounts of the Caracal that one can find in the context of Indian history it is quite clearly understood that the Caracal was fairly common and considered highly significant in those times. However, while it is known that the Cheetah got hunted to extinction in India, the events that lead to the Caracal becoming so rare are not clear.   

Caracal caracal blurring out of sight?

Given its tendency to hunt poultry, livestock and even pets, the Caracal in Africa is considered a notorious pest and persecution by killing, including through poisoning, is common. In India too, the Caracal has had a history of negative interactions with livestock rearers whereby the feline mostly got persecuted at sight. However, in the present scenario, Caracal sightings rarely get significantly reported. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) lists the Caracal as ‘Least Concern’ globally in its Red Data Book yet there is still no estimate on its global population size, let alone on the demographic trend of the population; whether it’s increasing or decreasing. In India the Caracal is listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972; at par with the Tiger and the Asiatic Lion and the highest possible level of legislative protection that a wild species in India can ever receive. The reason being, quite predictably, that the Caracal in India has always been a rare sight from the time of enactment of this act in 1972. The occurrence of a species tends to be sparse towards its distribution boundaries; Yet available scanty data suggests that Caracal numbers have indeed decreased. There is no published data that reliably estimates the number of Caracals in India at any point in time, and data on this species majorly comes as by-catch from large mammal surveys in range states. Even during interview surveys, it has been shown that elderly interviewees are mostly the ones who have seen or are familiar with the Caracal and have accounts of it to share. And indeed, reports suggest that Caracals were commonplace in the thirties. A rough estimate in 1987 suggested that 10-15 individuals occur in Kachchh and western India (Chavan, 1987). However, as Dr.  Gajera informs, “Kachchh is the only district in Gujarat where the Caracal persists….there are no more than 10 individuals in the whole of Kachchh”, as one of the key findings of GUIDE’s one of its kind Caracal Status Survey for the whole of Gujarat (2015-16). In Rajasthan the population estimate for 1984 was less than 50 individuals, however, a 1998 report re-estimated the numbers to be not more than 20 (Sharma and Sankhala 1984; Sharma 1998). A study by the Dehradun based Wildlife Institute of India, using data collected between 2006 and 2009, suggests a very low Caracal density of 4.8 individuals per 100 sq. km in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, whereas the estimate is 20 Caracals per 100 sq. km in Israel, 19.4 Caracals per 100 sq. km in North-central Africa and 23-47 Caracals per 100 sq. km in South Africa. A recent study in Madhya Pradesh (in 2016) suggests that the Caracal has faced a local extinction in the State. Published data from the remaining range states do not exist. A rule of thumb in ecology is that for a population to be a viable one it has to comprise of at least 50 individuals; any lower and it runs the risk of spiralling down to extinction. In small populations species find it difficult to find a mate for reproduction and breeding amongst closely related individuals may frequently occur, both of which are detrimental to the species’ existence. Perhaps such low numbers and density of the Caracal, in this context, is extremely worrisome, however, without more detailed research on the feline’s ecology in India any definite conclusion cannot be arrived at. Currently, three Protected Areas, namely, Ranthambore National Park and Kailadevi Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan and Narayan Sarovar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kachchh, Gujarat are the only known strongholds of Caracals in India. Persistent populations outside protected areas remain either unknown or poorly monitored. 

Like most threatened species, the Caracal in India too is expected to face a myriad of threats. Yet, on the basis of currently available knowledge, they are poorly understood. Habitat loss appears to be the single most prominent threat to the Caracal in India. “Caracals are very sensitive to habitat modification and their tolerance towards human interference is low” asserts Dr. Gajera. Large scale wind factories in Kachchh and intensive mining of Lignite, Limestone and Bentonite around and within Narayan Sarovar Wildlife Sanctuary are expected to cause more harm to the already dwindling population of the Caracal. In fact, 321 sq. km of forest land constituted within the Narayan Sarovar WLS, originally spanning 765.79 sq. km,  was de-notified by the State Government in 1995 and diverted for mining, thermal power plants and cement industries; this de-notified land closely borders the Godhatal zone, which not only forms the only corridor between the eastern and western zones of the sanctuary but has also been identified as an area of conservation priority for the Caracal. Additionally, Caracal habitats outside protected areas are gravely threatened due to their categorization as ‘wastelands’ under Government policy, which eases the process of land acquisition for agricultural practices and large-scale developmental projects.

Like all small cat species the Caracal, given its charismatic features, is also threatened by the illegal wildlife trade and is a favourite amongst exotic pet owners, despite being categorised under Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which prohibits the international trade in the species. As recently as in 2017, five Caracals and a Serval (another member of the Caracal lineage exclusively occurring in Africa) were rescued while being smuggled through Mirzapur, U.P., however, the probable African origin of the Caracals remains unconfirmed. Caracal pelt is also in demand in the illegal wildlife trade, with skins previously being recovered from Rajasthan. Death by vehicular collision and mauling by feral dogs are the other threats reported, although their contribution to population decline is not known.

Of all the funds that the wild cats of the world attract, less than 1% goes into small cat research. Hence, most species of small cats worldwide are plagued by a dearth of research and research-based conservation action. In this context the Caracal, which is arguably the rarest and least studied species of Indian felines, stands gravely disadvantaged. Let alone population status, the Caracal’s diet and how it varies seasonally, home range, behaviour, knowledge about source populations and connectivity amongst source and sink populations, habitat use, breeding biology (and the list goes on) remain either unknown or poorly understood. Knowledge of these basic ecological aspects of any species is a must for their conservation. Additionally, as of 2012 (Kolipaka 2012) and possibly till date there are no Caracals of Indian origin in any of the Indian zoos, hence, chances of ex-situ conservation of the species are bleak. With a seemingly intrinsic small population density, lack of ecological know-how, a myriad of threats and no conservation action plan at hand or under development the Caracal’s future in India in all probability appears grim. However, as the phrase goes, every dark cloud has a silver lining. Some institutes and NGOs are working hard to understand the species better. Like GUIDE’s efforts in conducting a state level status survey, the Karnataka-based N.G.O., the Deccan Conservation Foundation has initiated a similar survey around the Koppal district, and the Forest Department at Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary in M.P. has put up posters asking locals and visitors to report Caracal sightings. Efforts to understand Caracal distribution had also been undertaken in the Panna landscape in M.P.

It is a well-known fact amongst naturalists, biologists and conservationists that the Caracal may be nearing its disappearance in India. Yet there seems to be no sense of emergency or any unified effort to act on the issue. In order to boost the ongoing efforts and yield results of conservation significance a dedicated effort at a much larger scale is required, one that will help unify these smaller, discreet efforts. A Species Action Plan for the Caracal in India has to be taken up as an urgent issue. Otherwise, it might just be a matter of time before this unique feline follows the fate of India’s Asiatic Cheetahs it leaps into extinction.

References

  • Allsen, T.T., 2011. The royal hunt in Eurasian history. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • GUIDE & GEER, 2001. Ecological Status of Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary with a management perspective. Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, Bhuj and Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation, Gandhinagar. Final Report.
  • Kolipaka, S.S. (Ed.), 2012. Caracals in India. The Forgotten Cats. IBD Press, Dehradun, India.
  • O’Brien, S.J. and Johnson, W.E., 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American297(1), pp.68-75.
  • Singh, R., Qureshi, Q., Sankar, K., Krausman, P.R. and Goyal, S.P., 2014. Population and habitat characteristics of caracal in semi-arid landscape, western India. Journal of arid environments103, pp.92-95.
  • Singh, R., Qureshi, Q., Sankar, K., Krausman, P.R. and Goyal, S.P., 2015. Estimating occupancy and abundance of caracal in a semi-arid habitat, Western India. European Journal of Wildlife Research61(6), pp.915-918.
  • Sharma, V. & Sankhala, K. 1984. Vanishing Cats of Rajasthan. J In Jackson, P. (Ed). Proceedings from the Cat Specialist Group meeting in Kanha National Park. p. 116-135.
  • Stiling, P.D., 2012. Ecology: global insights & investigations Ecology (No. 577 St53e Ej. 1 024994). McGraw-Hill.
  • Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F., 2017. Wild cats of the world. University of Chicago Press.
  • JBNHS – Present Status of the Indian Lynx (Caracal Caracal): 1960
  • The hunting caracal
  • The amazing ears of the Caracal
  • The zoo in the farmhouse
  • Tracing the history of sightings, of the rare and mysterious caracal – Round Glass
  • Caracal: A cat that stole the show

About the author

Divyajyoti Ganguly

Divyajyoti is interested in research and conservation of small carnivores.

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