On a cloudy afternoon in April 2009, when wildlife biologist Dharmendra Khandal was winding his way out of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, he suddenly spotted a young family of caracals—a rare small wild cat—walking on the mud track.
Frightened, they disappeared into the bushes, so Khandal parked his Gypsy and waited. Several minutes of hide-and-seek later, the mother, followed by two young cubs, emerged, slinking close to Khandal’s jeep. One of the cubs nosed around in the leaf litter as the mother watched. The cub soon found a huge monitor lizard that had been killed earlier and hidden by the mother for the cubs to uncover. They took turns to tear and eat the meat before the mother picked up the half-eaten carcass and vanished into the bushes. It was a lesson in cat dining etiquette.
For Khandal, it was the encounter of a lifetime.
It was the first time he had seen this elusive cat in the six years he had been working as a biologist with Tiger Watch, a wildlife conservation NGO in Ranthambore. In the dozen years since, he has seen the caracal a few more times, but no sighting comes close to the first.
The Indian sub-species of this nocturnal caracal weighs less than 10kg. It has a plain rufous coat that camouflages it in sandy, scrubby vegetation. Its distinctive feature is the black pointed tufts of hair on its large ears and black markings on its cheeks. With its acute hearing, it can detect rats—which form the major part of its diet—and its longer hind legs enable it to out-jump and catch ground birds.
It’s found in the dry scrublands of southern and East Africa, the southern Sahara, Middle East, Central Asia and north-west India.
India forms the easternmost boundary of the caracal’s worldwide range. Species can often be rarer at the edge of their geographical distribution since the habitats they use become limited. So the caracal is a naturally occurring rare species in India.
For this reason, it has often been neglected by the scientific community as well as the government. We don’t have a reliable estimate of the number of these cats in the country, nor do we have an understanding of the areas they are found in.
Since 2015, there have been only three scientific publications on this cat. The most recent, published in December in the Journal of Threatened Taxa, is by Khandal and his colleague at Tiger Watch. Documenting the historical and current geographical range of the caracal in India, it records the cat’s presence in 13 states from 1616-1947. This dwindled to six states between 1947-2000. Since 2000, the caracal has been recorded largely in only two states, Rajasthan and Gujarat. “This amounts to the disappearance of the caracal from 95% of its distribution (range),” says Khandal.
That, hopefully, is about to change.
The cat has been on the Rajasthan forest department’s radar for a few years. But when the camera traps deployed to count tigers threw up low densities of caracals, the chief wildlife warden, M.L. Meena, took up the cause with the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MOEF&CC).
On 5 January, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) approved a dedicated conservation recovery programme for this reticent cat, adding the caracal to the list of critically endangered species. Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar announced the decision in a tweet a day later.
The Rajasthan forest department will now submit a proposal, including budgets, detailing the ways in which it intends to conserve the caracal. According to Surender Gugloth, scientist at the MOEF&CC, the ministry will verify the proposal, sanctioning a feasibility study of the recovery programme. “We would also do ground-truthing based on the study before releasing funds,” he says.
How to go about it
A recovery programme could entail three things: conserving available habitats to let the animals inhabiting these areas increase in numbers naturally; translocating animals from areas that have surplus numbers to areas that don’t have any; or breeding animals in captivity to rewild them in habitats from where they have disappeared.
Researchers suggest proceeding with caution, especially if the recovery programme could entail captive breeding of these carnivores, as suggested by Javadekar. “First, we should arrive at an estimate of the number of caracals,” says Khandal. “One doesn’t know what is the status of the caracal (in the country).”
The apathy towards arid landscapes is the primary threat to the caracal’s survival, says Shomita Mukherjee, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Cat Specialist Group, who studied the caracal at the Sariska Tiger Reserve during her doctoral studies in the mid-1990s and is the foremost expert on small cats in India. Animals are dependent on their habitats to move, breed and eat. If their habitat disappears, they either occupy other areas or perish.
This small cat is found in two kinds of landscapes. One, open forest landscapes like those outside Sariska and Ranthambore, which are extensively dominated by human and cattle populations. Two, the semi-arid scrub areas in Kutch, Gujarat, and the Chambal ravines, Madhya Pradesh, many of which are categorised as “wastelands” in existing land-use policies.
“We have got a higher number of captures outside the sanctuary than inside,” says Randeep Singh, biologist and assistant professor at Amity University in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. He has been camera-trapping caracals in and around the Sawai Mansingh wildlife sanctuary, a short drive from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, since 2019.
Singh has found that the cats use the open areas next to agricultural fields to hunt the rodents and hares that abound thanks to the grain crops growing there.
“My advice to the government is to monitor the satellite populations outside the protected areas to find out more information about the species,” says Singh. “The department should demarcate these regions where caracals are found to start monitoring them.”
He himself finds it difficult to work outside the sanctuary, given the paucity of funds for projects in non-protected areas and the frequent theft of, or damage to, his equipment. But he estimates the Ranthambore landscape has as many as 50 caracals. Khandal has about 200 camera-trap images of caracals from the past six years in and around Ranthambore.
For the caracal to survive, “a stand-alone recovery programme may not help,” says Mukherjee. “We first need to have a Conservation Action Plan for the species through consultations with stakeholders, including other researchers, local communities and state forest departments.”
Such a plan would document not just the actions required for research, policy and outreach but also list timelines for each activity. She suggests the government deploy a multi-pronged approach using ecological studies, surveys, population recovery measures and habitat improvement. “Otherwise, it would be a futile exercise where the caracal will be bred for recovery, but the natural habitats will remain unsafe and converted for other uses,” says Mukherjee.
Scientists concur that there are vast areas of open, dry scrub forests in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra that can support a healthy, viable population of caracals if their numbers are allowed to increase naturally.
Khandal says eight sanctuaries in Rajasthan alone can support caracals. Captive breeding and release should be the last resort, he says. “It is difficult to train a carnivore in captivity as they need to learn the instincts of hunting from their mothers,” he says. “What the mother can pass on, humans can’t.”
G.V. Reddy, who retired recently as the chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan and is a co-author on Khandal’s study, says breeding programmes could help but would need sufficient numbers of animals to begin with. “Already the population is low and if we capture them then we are further reducing their numbers,” he says.
One can only hope that the government will take the lead in ensuring the caracal doesn’t go the way of the cheetah.
Vrushal Pendharkar is a Mumbai-based environment journalist.